From The Blog

DNA Is Hard To Change

I wrote this post as Blog Post #1 for InfoArmy:

After we sold Jigsaw I had a year at Salesforce to think about what I did right and what I did wrong as CEO.  One of the things I did wrong was not get a design and deliverability framework in place from the very beginning.  I’m not going to be too hard on myself because I was a first-time CEO. Frankly, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I had come up through the ranks as a VP of Sales and I had no clue how to build a great product. We raised $750K in December 2003 and had to have a beta product out by May 15, 2004. We got it out – but it wasn’t pretty.  Worse, I was a feature junkie.  My technical team knew that they better have a bunch of bright shiny new features for every release or I wasn’t going to be pleased. For the first three years of jigsaw’s life I tried to put as many ornaments on the Christmas Tree as possible.

Then I got religion. It came in the form of my good friend Raj Kapoor, a VC at Mayfield Fund. Prior to being a VC Raj was founder and CEO of Snapfish. Raj and I had lunch one day and I explained to him that I wasn’t satisfied with the quality of our product.  After asking me a few questions he made me understand the nasty downside of feature addiction. (Note: several of my employees had tried to tell me this previously but I didn’t listen!)

Raj went on to explain that they used a design framework at Snapfish. It was called DIFFET.

D – Dynamic
I – Inviting
F – Fun
F – Fast
E – Engaging
T – Trustworthy

Every employee at Snapfish had the ability to stop the presses by saying that what they were doing did not pass the DIFFET test.  For me, “Fast” was the most eye-opening. Raj explained to me that speed was a feature (Duh!).  He explained that having a fast website solved a bunch of downstream problems for Snapfish. Companies like Google won largely because of speed. He also pointed out that I would need to celebrate and reward increases in speed and performance as much as I did new features.

All fired up I went back to Jigsaw, called my executive team in my office, and told them about my new religion. To their credit none of them actually fell on the floor laughing. Undeterred I worked with my team to put together a Jigsaw DIFFET statement.  We called ours SOFTEC.

S – Simple
O – Open
F – Fast
T – Transparent
E – Engaging
C – Collaborative

All our problems were solved right? Wrong.  Even though I started preaching simplicity and speed we found it very difficult to change the DNA of our company (and especially my own mindset as CEO).  Put another way: we found it far more difficult to take ornaments off the Christmas Tree than it was to put them on. Making things simple and fast takes real time and effort!  Also, our engineers were trained to deliver maximum features.  It was very difficult to turn the ship around.  I still wanted both speed AND new features for Jigsaw. I couldn’t stomach the thought of any period of time going by without new features.  In other words, I talked the talk but I didn’t walk the walk. Luckily, when we created Jigsaw Data Fusion (our Data-as-a-Service product) we used the SOFTEC principles. It was simple and fast and ultimately led to our $175 million acquisition by Salesforce.  I ultimately got religion but it took creating a whole new product to do it.

Moral of the story: when starting a company get your design and deliverability guidelines in place before you even start. Have them guide everything you do – not just your product. Get this DNA set early as it is very difficult to change later.

Next post: InfoArmy’s design and deliverability guidelines – QPSS.

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Waiting for “Superman”

I finally watched “Waiting for “Superman” a couple of nights ago.  If you haven’t seen the movie I would recommend you watch it before reading the rest of this post.  It is a must see if you care at all about education.

The movie really spoke to me as a long time supporter of School Choice and did a great job explaining exactly what is wrong with public education.  I especially loved how the movie eviscerated the teacher’s unions.  Over and over the movie showed video of self-serving teachers union officials and did a voice-over with the statement: “We know who represents the teachers.  Who represents the students?”.  It was great.

Especially moving (in an incredibly sad way) was seeing the faces of kids and parents who pin their hopes and dreams on the slim chance of getting into a Charter School – and not getting accepted.  Tears were definitely streaming down my face.

The movie was flawed in only one way.  It does a great job outlining the problems but does little to propose solutions.  Granted, part of the process of getting to a solution is understanding the problem.  The purpose of this post is to propose a solution.

The movie is about Charter Schools.  More specifically, the movie shows how Charter Schools can do amazing things when not constrained by bureaucracy.   Charter schools can hire/fire their own teachers, set their own curriculum, and set their own rules.  But…. they are still dependent on school boards and politicians for their money, and in most states they must still “teach to the test“.

I submit that Charter Schools are a giant step in the right direction, but are really only a half step toward the real solution.  The full and proper step would be to get the government (and its bloated bureaucracy) out of the way and implement what I call Publicly Funded School Choice.  By applying free market principals to primary and secondary education (like we do to almost every other industry in America) I believe we would quickly propel our lagging system to the very forefront of global education innovation.  More importantly, every student would get a better education than they currently get today.

American Universities are widely considered to be the best in the world  Why?  Because our University system is almost a free market.  Universities have far more ability to hire/fire teachers and students, set their own curriculum and rules, and set prices that allow them to provide quality products at competitive prices.  There is something for everyone in our university system because these schools specialize.  The market decides what schools start, succeed, and fail – not politicians and teachers unions.

I don’t get it.  Why don’t we apply these same free market principals to primary/secondary education?

The solution for making our schools great is to give every kid a voucher and let the market do its magic.  True, not every kid is going to get into Harvard.  But the good news is that a system of school choice can’t be worse than the system that exists today.  Publicly Funded School Choice will will result in public schools eventually being replaced by universal private education.  Public schools, with their political shackles, just won’t be able to compete with agile private businesses.  Imagine a world were every kid goes to private school – not just the rich or the lucky. I believe we will be truly and utterly amazed at what innovation and greatness we will see in our schools if a free market is allowed to flourish.

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Small Business Summit 2011

I’m on Virgin America (it still rocks) back to SFO from NYC.  I spoke at the Small Business Summit 2011 yesterday and wanted to pass on some thoughts.

First, Ramon Ray, the conference organizer is an insanely great guy.  I’ve known him for years as he has written and blogged about Jigsaw kindly many times.  When he asked me to speak a year ago I readily agreed.  He and his partner, Marian Banker, did a fantastic job with the conference and it was very well organized.  Ramon’s limitless energy and enthusiasm permeated the whole room and infected everyone there.

There were several hundred small business owners and start-up entrepreneurs in the audience.  I spoke for 30 minutes and basically told the Jigsaw story and gave them some lessons learned.  After I was done Ramon had six volunteers come up to the front for an impromptu small business clinic.  They had to present a quick business problem they were having trouble with and I had to give them a quick answer/advice.  At first I was thinking “Great, I have to trash people’s ideas in front of a big audience!”.  But, it was fun.  Ramon knows what he’s doing!

I got a lot of questions after, mostly from those in the audience that have a burgeoning technical start-up or are trying to get one off the ground.  You can view the deck I presented here.

General observations:

  • Software/Internet entrepreneurship thrives in NYC. A LOT of very young people with great attitudes and the clear willingness to work their asses off for no pay in order to realize their dreams.
  • A surprisingly high percentage of these people were women.  Maybe it was the audience, but it feels like NYC has a higher percentage of women starting up than the Silicon Valley.
  • Many questions on how/when/why to raise money from VCs.  Compared to the Silicon Valley they seem far more wary about giving up equity.  Many seemed to distrust VCs.  I got so many questions on this subject I decided to write down my advice on fundraising and you can read it here.
  • Many questions on how to turn their service into a product.  (People who do custom work and want to convert the result into a repeatable sale).  My belief is that this is very hard to do.  The DNA of a company founded to do custom work is very different from a laser focused product company.  Plus, it is very hard not to chase revenue for other custom projects that come up when you have bills to pay.  Entrepreneurs think they can do both, and I don’t think they can very often.  To do this takes discipline!
  • I was reminded again the difference between styles on the East Coast vs. the West Coast.  New Yorkers are far more direct and blunt.  I like it!

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