Entrepreneurial Leadership and Management . . . and Other Stuff

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Feb
25

When I Grow Up . . .

Like many a household this time of year, mine is consumed with angst waiting to hear which colleges my kid has gotten into.  And like many parents in a similar situation, I’m caught by how the educational system in the US forces many kids to pick a path before they really have any idea what their choices are.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I believe the system is terribly broken.  College students don’t sign a suicide pact along with their enrollment documents.  Majors can change, extra time can be taken and students can move to another academic institution at almost any time (One of the schools my son applied to has a 24% dropout rate after freshman year.  That is, 24% of the students who enter the school leave after a single year to go to another school).  Perhaps, though, we could educate happier people who are better at their chosen occupation if we spent the first year of their college experience showing them the huge menu of choices they have.  So at least they have a chance of not stumbling down an non-optimal, predetermined path.

This situation has made me consider if this is, in fact, a current generation phenomenon or was this the case 30-some years ago when I went off to college.  I think it is different today.  Certainly I didn’t understand the full smorgasbord of choices available to me at the time, but after a lifetime of experimenting with the world around me and taking things apart, I knew I wanted to be some sort of engineer.  I went to an engineering college (Lehigh University) and got exposed to the engineering disciplines and chose one.  I’m confident my path led me to the right choice.

Today, though, kids are so sheltered before entering college, their experiences tend to be very narrow.  They’re barely able to ride their bikes to the end of the street and mom and dad want a GPS bracelet and cell phone strapped to their children at all times.  Since there’s little freedom, there’s certainly little exploration and virtually no failure.  When I was a kid, I had no qualms about clamping an Estes D rocket engine to my mother’s bathroom vanity to see what would happen (she almost strangled me although that wasn’t the experimental result I was thinking about when I did it and, oh, rocket engines burn VERY hot).  Today, I don’t even know if a 12 year old can legally buy a D-size engine.  A kid certainly can’t purchase lightable fuse any longer.

Many kids are also entering college never having held a substantial job nor even having had any real financial responsibilities in their lives.  Do we really expect them to make life-long decisions after never having anything to base them on?

Of course, dumping this responsibility on colleges and universities is simply a patch for a problem that they didn’t create in the first place.  As impossible as it seems, though, I think it would be easier to change how some colleges function than it would be to change how parents are raising their children or, to alter the myriad of environmental factors that cause parents (me included) to shelter their children so much.

I realize I’m rambling and this topic deserves more thought and effort.  Any thoughts?  Comments?

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 February 25th, 2009  
 Will  
 Misc Thoughts  
   
 28 Comments
Feb
24

Really, Really Short Stories

Perhaps the most famous piece of very short fiction is the story Ernest Hemingway apparently considered his best prose:

"For sale: baby shoes, never used."

Like most things Hemingway, the few words expand into a massive picture in one’s mind.  A real work of art and, in this case, very sad.

While cruising around the ‘Net the other day, I ran into an old Wired Magazine blog post which had similarly short pieces by various sci-fi, fantasy and horror writers.

My favorites are:

“Failed SAT. Lost scholarship. Invented rocket.”
William Shatner

“Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time”
Alan Moore

“Internet “wakes up?” Ridicu –
no carrier.”
Charles Stross

For those that remember actually needing a carrier signal.

“It’s behind you! Hurry before it “
Rockne S. O’Bannon

“Easy. Just touch the match to”
Ursula K. Le Guin

Loads of fun ones.  Check ‘em out.

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 February 24th, 2009  
 Will  
 Misc Thoughts  
   
 12 Comments
Feb
21

When “We” Are “They”

I’m always surprised and a bit taken aback when I hear an employee of any company use the term "they" instead of "we" when referring to the company they work for.  It makes me wonder exactly what it is about the relationship between the company and the employee that prevents that employee from feeling part of the whole – a spoke in the wheel, an integral cog in the machine.  Of course, it’s not only a company-wide phenomenon.  The same thing can happen in smaller groups within the company or, in fact, within any size organization.  Certainly, there are some people who have an aversion to belonging to a group, but I have to believe that, most often, this happens because the leadership and management of the company has failed to create the type of bond that leads to "we."

Does it even matter?  I think so.  If employees feel that they are outsiders, they’re less likely to feel ownership for the success or failure of the organization.  They, most likely, will do their job and go home at the end of the day satisfied that they did what they were assigned.  A person who feels bound to the organization and a critical component of it will likely, however, be focused not only on their own success, but the success of the organization as a whole.  When everyone in a group feels this way, the entire group is more productive, is easier to manage and is more innovative.

It’s easy to blame the employee for not feeling like they are part of the team, but as I said before, the employee’s feeling like an outsider is almost always the fault of his/her management.  And, the onus is on management to fix the problem in order to optimize the performance of the group.  This, obviously, starts with the manager making sure the employee feels like an integral part of a team using simple management techniques involving buy in, delegation, responsibility and trust.

The manager shouldn’t simply dole out tasks to be completed but, instead, he/she should get the members of the team involved in the planning of the tasks required and then hold them responsible and accountable for their deliverables.  Let them come up with the plan, specifications and dates, question them to test that the details meet all constraints and are aligned with the abilities of the group, then let the members of the group execute according to their plan (always remembering that management style needs to change for each person being managed – see It’s OK to Micromanage . . . Sometimes).  That way, success or failure is theirs, not management’s.  This creates buy-in and ownership and, ultimately, a team environment in which each person feels like an important part.

That should cover the “we” related to project ownership.  Here are some other tools to help the employee feel part of the bigger picture:

  • Recognize people for their individual contributions privately and for their group contributions publicly.  That way, others see the implicit reward in working together.
  • Ask for input from people on projects that they aren’t even working on.  Get them thinking about the bigger picture and expand their scope outside their day-to-day focus.
  • Have people teach others – there’s no responsibility or ownership of the outcome quite like that of a teacher’s.
  • Give those with less of a team-focus the responsibility of representing the team to outside groups (OK, maybe not customers at first).  Most people will step up when they are responsible for representing others.

When an employee refers to their group or company as “they,” it’s a sure signal that they don’t have any ownership of the success or failure of the organization.  Nothing good can come of this.  It’s the manager’s responsibility to fix the situation by getting the employee more involved and to feel that the progress of the group/team/company is directly tied to them and that their efforts are valuable because they are a piece of a bigger picture – they are less valuable and less significant if they stand alone.

 February 21st, 2009  
 Will  
 Leadership, Management  
   
 2 Comments
Feb
17

TechStars Comes to Boston

Over the last few years, it has become increasingly difficult for Boston-based fledgling startups to get a leg up; to get, well . . . started.  It’s mind boggling, really.  There is so much talent and there are so many good ideas, it’s just been shocking to witness teams and ideas die on the vine.  Some of this is about the availability of money, of course, with many New England VCs choosing to invest in larger or later stage deals, but more of it, in my opinion, has been about the environment.  While there are some avenues for startup entrepreneurs to get help and advice, they are few and far between and often hard to get access to.  Recently, Y Combinator, the last bastion of Boston-area startup aide chose to leave Cambridge for sunnier digs in the Bay Area.

The good news is that TechStars has been planning a move to Boston for the last six months and has just announced that will be in full operation this summer.  TechStars has been hugely successful in Boulder.  Its success has been because the program is based on mentorship.  TechStars has a terrific group of mentors (yeah, including yours truly) that guide, teach, coach and help new entrepreneurs accelerate their ideas into real companies.  And, of course, there’s money involved.  TechStars invests a small amount of money to kick start each of the companies in the program.

Does it work?  Hell yes!  Last year, TechStars Boulder’s second year of operation, 393 teams applied for 10 slots.  The high number of applications were driven by the success of the companies involved in the program – 12 of the 20 that have been through it have received follow-on funding and 2 of the companies from the first year (2007) have already been acquired.  See more here.

TechStars Boston will be managed by Shawn Broderick and backed up by Boulder TechStars co-founders David Cohen and Brad Feld.  A long list of Boston-area Mentors has already signed on to participate including, Colin Angle, Dan Bricklin, Don Dodge, Eran Egozy, Chris Heidelberger, Nabeel Hyatt, Warren Katz, John Landry, Rich Levandov, Bijan Sabet, Ronald Schmelzer, Bill Warner and me.

TechStars Boston will be located in Cambridge and is now open for applications for its ten summer 2009 slots.  Applications are due by March 21, 2009.

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 February 17th, 2009  
 Will  
 General Business, TechStars, VC  
   
 1 Comment
Feb
16

Lost My Feed with Upgrade to WordPress 2.7

[Two posts were ignored by Feedburner once I got connected: WordPress Upgrade, New Theme and Other Stuff and Gadget Review: VuDu Box.  If you’re interested in either, you can use the links above.]

Yikes!  I just discovered that my feed on Feedburner disappeared after my “upgrade to WordPress 2.7.  Not only were no blog readers notified of new posts, but the feed itself was blank.  After unsuccessfully searching for a solution in the Google Feedburner Help Group and through various other forums, blogs and blogging therapy clinics, I gave up.  While several people had similar difficulties, none of their fixes worked for me.

To make a long story somewhat shorter, after hacking around a lot with WordPress, I discovered that the link to the blog’s “original” feed on my server was incorrect on the Feedburner side.  Specifically, the link was http://www.2-speed.com/wp-rss2.php when it should be http://www.2-speed.com/feed.  I made the change in “Edit feed details” on my Feedburner page.

I don’t know if this was a change resulting from the upgrade to WordPress 2.7 (although I expect it was) or because of the recent change Google has made to the Feedburner service.  In any event, I hope my pain and discovery can help someone else with the same problem.

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 February 16th, 2009  
 Will  
 Software  
   
 4 Comments
Feb
16

Gadget Review: VuDu Box

vudu I have been intrigued by VuDu for a while now and succumbed to my curiosity, picking up a VuDu Box a few weeks ago.  For those unfamiliar, VuDu streams movies (and a few other online video services) over the net and into your home.  Unlike some, VuDu doesn’t require a computer in the loop and hooks up to your existing home theater equipment very easily.  What makes VuDu a bit different is it’s massive title list, including virtually every new title as soon as it’s available on DVD and, more importantly, its streaming of “HDX” content – your favorite videos in 1080p (yes, that’s a “p”) at 24 frames/second.  There are no monthly fees and the price per movie is totally reasonable.

The company and the product do an amazing number of things right and only a couple wrong, as far as I can see.  Since the plusses far outnumber the minuses, I’ll start there.  First, the box is very small and very sleek.  Mine sits on top of some other stuff in a rack in a closet, but the unit would fit nicely into anyone’s exposed media equipment stack.  Second, VuDu has just about the coolest remote I’ve ever seen.  It’s tiny, with a scroll wheel and a few buttons.  It isn’t backlit, but there are so few buttons, it’s hard to get lost.  At first, I thought that there was no way the remote could easily handle all its chores, but in combination with the great user interface, it works like a champ.

The box has a 250GB disk in it and downloads movies to be watched or while you’re watching.  SD and HD movies are playable immediately, but HDX movies – obviously much larger – need to be queued up a couple of hours before being viewed.  VuDu has an iPhone app, so if you leave the house and forget to queue something up for viewing later, you can do so remotely.  Movies are rented, for the most part, and need to be completed within 24 hours of starting them.  Some movies are also available for purchase.  Keep in mind, though, they are permanently bound to the VuDu Box.

So now, the downside.  While the box has the standard output ports – composite, component and HDMI, what comes out of them is limited.  My projector, about two years old, only takes component connections.  Contrary to what many think, component can handle 1080p content without breaking a sweat.  Yet, the VuDu doesn’t pump 1080p content out of it’s component ports.  1080p is only available via HDMI.  If your television doesn’t have HDMI, or its HDMI ports are used up, you may have a problem (there are HDMI switchers if you have at least one HDMI port).  Apparently, the VuDu Box’ big brother, the VuDu XL does, in fact, push 1080p out its component connectors.

When I ran into this problem during installation, I immediately considered returning the box.  After watching several movies in lower def, though, I’m impressed with the quality.  Even in SD, the picture looks as good as any HD television broadcast.  It appears that the box is doing an upscaling of the 480p content to at least 1080i.  There are no strange artifacts, though, and each pixel looks unique.  It’s certainly not like Blu-ray, but it’s damned good.

The VuDu Box is now available for $150.  When I bought mine, several retailers had them for sale for $300, including a $200 movie rental credit.  Even in a world where the number of home video portals is expanding faster than Jessica Simpson’s gut, I think the VuDu represents a huge, high-quality value.

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 February 16th, 2009  
 Will  
 Gadgets  
   
 9 Comments
Feb
12

WordPress Upgrade, New Theme and Other Stuff

For the last few days, I’ve been working on my blog – what you see and what you don’t.  This blog is managed by me, but is actually sourced at a web hosting provider.  For a while now, I’ve wanted to create a mirror of the blog on my local server in my house – a Windows Home Server box.  This took me longer than expected, but I now have the blog running in two places.  Suspenders AND a belt.

While I was at it, I upgraded to WordPress 2.7.1, the latest and greatest blogging platform from the wonderful folks at WordPress.  That would have gone easily, except WordPress now has threaded comments (thanks IntenseDebate) which blew up my theme.  Additionally, my old theme had loads of PHP hacks that I had written.  So, I decided to use a new theme,  Atahualpa, which has so much high-level configurability built in, that I didn’t have to touch a single line of PHP to get what I wanted.  Very impressive.  It did not, however, make up for my complete lack of visual design skill as you can see . . .

Somewhere along the way, older posts lost the email addresses of their commenters.  My face is also appearing as the Gravatar of all commenters (yuck).  I’m gonna have to look at this further.  More disturbing is that my URL rewriter doesn’t seem to be doing its job, breaking links to other posts.  That’s gonna require some study as well.

These problems aren’t entirely unexpected and part of what happens when you manage this stuff yourself.  Of course, it’s exactly why I manage this stuff myself.  It’s hard to know how it works if you don’t get your hands dirty.

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 February 12th, 2009  
 Will  
 Software  
   
 6 Comments
Feb
10

Gotta Love Low Rent Advertising

The back pages of auto magazines are famous for being loaded with advertisements for somewhat . . . let’s say, questionable, goods and services.  Pheromone supplements for your aftershave, slinky outfits for your [in]significant other, a variety of tools and chemicals to increase the length of certain body parts or the amount of time you put them to good use.  There are even some ads for crap for your car.

I used to skip the whole section, but the magazines have become wise to that and now put real content after the ads, forcing you to skim through them.  Very smart.  In any event, I enjoy scanning them.  Some of them are innovative and, for the car guy, merge all wants and needs together nicely.  Like this one . . .

Hard Brake Pedal Ad

I wish I were that creative.

 February 10th, 2009  
 Will  
 Advertising, Marketing, Stuff with a Motor  
   
 Comments Off on Gotta Love Low Rent Advertising
Feb
04

Don’t Be a Deadfoot Manager

Poland road sign A-23. Danger upward slope.

Image via Wikipedia

A “deadfoot” driver is one who keeps the accelerator pedal at the same position regardless of the slope or condition of the road they are on.  As such, they often climb hills at 40mph and descend them at 80mph.  They also tend to be the people lying with the shiny side of the car facing down just beyond a slick patch of pavement.  You get the idea and you know who I’m talking about.

This deadfoot phenomena actually happens more frequently in management than on the road.  Managers adopt a single style and apply it no matter who is being managed or what the situation is.  The results are the same, though.  Deadfoot managers crash and burn more frequently.

Sometimes, this is because the manager doesn’t know any better – management is management, right?  And at other times, when people are stressed, they tend to fall back on what they know and on what has worked before.  For individual performers, this may work.  For someone responsible for a group of people, it almost never does.

Not only does managerial style need to change for each individual being managed (see It’s OK to Micromanage . . . Sometimes), but it needs to be further adjusted situationally.  At times, a different style is needed to address the then current performance of an employee and at times because the macro-environment has changed, creating new or different demands on the group or its members.

As I’ve spoken about before, managers are the cornerstone of success – they have more leverage over the performance of an organization than any individual performer can ever have.  Successful managers learn to adjust their management style for every person they manage and according to the situation that the group and the individual are in. 

It’s important to keep in mind that the actual changes to style are often subtle – the frequency of meetings or reviews; the amount of teaching and hand-holding versus delegating; and the percentage of time spent guiding versus simply checking in.

Managers who constantly adapt to their situation and to the particular needs of each of their employees will avoid becoming a deadfoot manager and, ultimately, be well equipped to lead the highest performance teams.

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 February 4th, 2009  
 Will  
 Management, Stuff with a Motor  
   
 6 Comments
Feb
02

Is Football an Eastern (U.S.) Sport?

Watching the Super Bowl yesterday, it struck me that it’s been a while since a West Coast team has taken home the Lombardi Trophy.  While I was pretty sure I could remember the last 20 Super Bowl winners or so, I looked up the winners this decade just to check my facts . . .

Year

Team

2000 Baltimore Ravens
2001 NE Patriots
2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2003 NE Patriots
2004 NE Patriots
2005 Pittsburgh Steelers
2006 Indianapolis Colts
2007 NY Giants
2008 Pittsburgh Steelers

[Note: Yesterday was the 2008 Super Bowl – that’s how the NFL does it, the championship for the 2008 season]

Hmmm.  Interesting.  Every winner this decade has represented a city east of the Mississippi.  What makes this so strange to me is that when I was younger, it seemed that western teams always dominated the NFL.  In fact, only 6 of the previous 20 Super Bowl winners were from the eastern U.S. (although St. Louis and Dallas can hardly be considered West Coast).

So, is pro football really an East Coast sport?  The NFL has worked hard for many years to achieve parity among its teams.  Parity is supposed to create a more competitive environment and one, of course, that attracts more fans.  So if there’s parity, why do eastern teams win so often lately?  And if pro football isn’t an eastern U.S. sport, why does the biggest city in the country, a western city – Los Angeles – not have a single team?

Could it really be that professional football is an eastern sport?

 February 2nd, 2009  
 Will  
 Sports  
   
 8 Comments