Offsites for Startups - Why They're Needed and How to Conduct Them

Let me set the stage.  You started your company 12-18 months ago with incredible energy, formed a great team, raised some money, and got to work.  You talked with customers, implemented scrum, drank a lot of coffee, shipped some product, held some launch parties, and attended a ton of entrepreneur-focused events.  All was great, for a while.  

Then you started noticing some signs that things weren't all rosy on the home front, and fear started creeping in:
* you felt like your team wasn't working long enough hours during the week, and God forbid put in a weekend effort, even though sprints ended with undone tasks
* other startups seem to have much better cultures, and overall get more done
* you wonder why team members don't stretch themselves more to take on additional tasks, or try new things
* kitchen-cleanup never seems to be done by certain people
* certain team members log 5x the bugs of anyone else on the team
* the team is talking less with one another, and snapping at each other more often
* folks aren't as enthusiastic to attend happy hours together

If any of these are familiar, I'd recommend that you consider holding a team offsite, and make offsites part of your regular routine.  You may feel like they are a bit Dilbertesque, but I've personally found them to be very helpful, and I've also given this advice to other CEOs at rapidly-growing ($10s of millions in revenue) startups, and they came back with ravingly positive feedback as well.

Why hold offsites?  They are a great way to reset the team - think of them as another CEO tool to engineer for peak efficiency.  You get a chance, out of the office, to (a) share high-level successes and failures, (b) set expectations, (c) get feedback from the team, and really, to remind everyone that they're important parts of your unique culture and thus have both a right and obligation to actively participate (this is one of the reasons they're working for you and making less money than they would at a big company, right?!?)  And, hopefully you'll have some fun as well.

When should you hold offsites?  See above :-)  It's possible to just do them 'as needed'; but you'll likely find a normal flow to needing them.  My experience has been that they make sense every 4-6 months, as a certain amount of scarring builds up from the stresses of sprints, bugs, and realized inefficiencies.

How do you organize your offsite?  Obviously, you'll come up with your own flavor over time.  But, if it's your first one, and your team is 3-10 people, this is what I recommend as a rough template.  

First, I'd recommend requesting/requiring 'writing assignments' from all team members.  They don't need to be long (a paragraph or two can answer each, and grammar isn't important).  Send these out a few days ahead of time, and ask them to email their replies to you the afternoon before the offsite.  Examples of questions we used:
* Why did you join this startup?  What do you want to accomplish?  What's success for YOU?
* What do you expect from your co-workers?  And what should they expect from you?
* Rank our core values in order of importance/relevance.  Are there any we should remove, or add?
* What future features/product changes do you feel strongly that we should consider? (they don't need to be on our current roadmap)

I promise that you will be inspired by the answers you receive.  This simple exercise will remind everyone why they joined your company, and let them say in their own words what their goals are, rather than listening to you set the agenda.  And, they'll help you course correct, as a team, if there are competing agendas.

Rough time/agenda:

* 30-60 minutes (probably a few slides prepared by you to make it easy to follow) - review goals, accomplishments, failures (not finger pointing - they are what they are)
* 2ish hours - have people read their answers to the writing assignments.  Do one question, with answers from everyone, before moving on to the next question.  There will definitely be some overlap in answers, but I promise you that the team will be inspired to hear the goals and expectations, coming from the individual team members themselves.  You should take notes, listening for themes that should be addressed, or issues that you can quickly resolve (do this later in the offsite, rather than real time, so that you allow everyone's voice to be heard -- this also allows you to stay out of tactical shifts in real-time). 
* Team lunch/BBQ - make it together (usually this is easy if you hold the offsite at someone's house, or at a place where you can cook outside).  Invariably you'll have a few team members who are more adept in the kitchen, and can drive this.
* 30 minutes - review what you heard from everyone in the morning.  Are there themes that arose that can or should be addressed?  Any surprises from people? 

These last sections could have some prepared slides to review with everyone:
* 30 minutes - Review how you think your business model works (with actual metrics).  Get reaction to this -- is it reality? 
* 30 minutes - Review current Product Backlog / Quick-Hit Backlog (top 20-40 of each).  How do these mesh with earlier discussions?  Any changes needed?
* 30 minutes - Discuss 'how' you get work done.  Review your processes (scrum, release cycles, etc). Are changes needed?   Longer/shorter?  Work hours/effort needed/expected?  (you may be surprised that others want to see bigger efforts as well!)  Make some changes based on what the team's telling you, if you all think it will help you achieve your goals.
* 2-3 hours - true/fun activity.  Don't force it.  Figure out something that fits with your culture, and includes everyone.  For TeachStreet, this may have been us taking a class together (and then going for beers).  But the connection to our culture/values was important, even here.

What do you do after the offsite?  I think it's important that on the day after the offsite, you summarize what you heard (get feedback if anyone thinks you missed anything important), and share/implement changes or next steps immediately. Don't lose the momentum from the day!  This can be a powerful way to reset expectations, and make it clear that everyone shared in them.

These are some examples of changes I've seen, or been part of.  You'll come up with your own:
* developed our list of core values
* implemented new sprint cycle length because our initial one was too short (we were spending too much time planning, and too little time building)
* started new process to share work product regularly, on Friday afternoons
* added a new comped snack policy (people asked if we could have snacks -- we quickly said "sure - $100-$150/week in snacks - only requirement is that we all shared the responsibility to place the order each week")
* new work-hour expectations (this is a never-ending challenge!)

Hopefully you'll come out of the day with more collective energy, and renewed team focus.  And in a few months, you'll likely need to do it all over again, for many of the same reasons.  Your organization is an evolving organism, so you need to constantly shed the bad behaviors, and try new ones that feel right for your team.  Good luck!

p.s. Please share any offsite tips in the comments.

Getting out of ruts by doing goal-activities first

I've been thinking a lot about ruts of late.  Specifically, how to get out of them.  Because they're nasty things, and we all get in them.

For instance, I've wanted to exercise more often.  And blog more frequently.  And meditate more regularly.  I've thought about them, and aspired to them, and I know that when I do them (exercise and meditate, specifically) that many other areas of my life are better -- I'm happier, feel healthier, and have more energy. 

But I haven't done those things. Why is that?  What prevents me?

I realize that one reason is that I have other routines that I escape to -- for instance, instead of waking up and going for a run immediately, I get up and check email (or even worse, do that while still lying in bed, via iPad Mini).  Not only does that cause me to imagine new to-dos that I can react to quickly, but it probably means I was thinking about undone to-dos in my sleep.  I also lose a few (20?!?) minutes archiving unimportant mail, checking Sportscenter, playing a few games of Sudoku, reading Twitter, checking Facebook...  you get the idea.  I wouldn't prioritize any of this stuff, but it's my routine, and it gives me some feeling of accomplishing or learning something.

I then move on to other routines.  Make the coffee (this one is here to stay :-) ).  Feed the dogs (pretty important).  Shower (you all appreciate this one).  And throughout the day I have my mix of good and very bad (checking email/twitter/etc. obsessively) routines.

Another reason that I don't do my desired activities is that it's just so darn easy, in the immediate moment, to not do them.  I avoid the physical discomfort of jogging and getting back into shape; the emotional discomfort of capturing and sharing my thoughts; and the (side note -- I just really wanted to go check to see if I had any new emails, but I held off until I finish this post!) temporal discomfort of quietly meditating while there are other endorphin-generating obsessions I could be chasing down.

So, for me, as much as I know I need to reduce my obsessive tendencies around email/social media/news reading, one likely hack is just to do my goal (rut-breaking) activity first.  In this way, I'd somewhat treat myself like a child who doesn't get dessert if they don't eat their vegetables -- "David, no bad habits until you run your three miles!"  Of course, a better long-term solution is to break the connection between those activities and dessert, but here, I'm just looking to get out of some ruts and instill some better behaviors.

OK -- abrupt end of post.  My writing skills are limited.  Live with it.  I've had to learn to.


Why it's hard to get out of ruts:
* We develop habits that don't include certain desired activities
* These habits mentally tell us we're accomplishing things/making progress/achieving success
* Pain > Pleasure from doing desired activities, because it's true in the short-term, and difficult for us to discount back the long-term pleasure

* Figure out your goal activities and do them first (can be first thing in the morning or even later in the day -- the key is that they're done before your escape activity)
* Make prioritized to-do lists.

P.S. I need help with the CSS/styling on this blog.  Anyone want to earn some good karma and/or $s?

Recruiting and Interviewing Tips for Early Stage Startups

As part of my time with startups at AWS Office/Mentor Hour sessions, I'm often asked to give a presentation on some interviewing and recruiting tips for startups. The advice is actually pretty germane to all recruiting.  This presentation can be found here (having issues getting the embed to work directly on my blog...), and the video of an older (and worse) version of this preso can be found here.

End of day, recruiting for me is about a few things:
1) Know what you're recruiting for.  Of course, you need to know what specific skills you want for the role.  But more important, you need to know the culture you want for your team, and the types of people you want.  Then you have to set the bar for greatness and be 100% sure you nail your must-haves, and that the candidate raises the bar on at least a few dimensions.
2) Know what you're going to ask the candidates.  You should have prepared before the interview, and have your questions planned (and you should have used your questions with candidates previously, so that you know what a great answer looks like)
3) Use a behavior interviewing technique.  Once you know what you're looking for, ask repeatedly for them to give you examples from their past where they demonstrated those characteristics.  Dig into their answers.  Tell them what their role was on the team.  How did they know they achieved the goal, or failed.  What did they do change based on what they learned, and what was the person's specific ownership/deliver element with that?
4) Take a lot of notes during the interview.  What did you ask?  How did they answer?  Develop shorthand for flagging the good and bad, so you can distill it later, and/or ask follow-on questions.
5) Develop a firm opinion.  Are they a strong hire?  A Hire?  A No Hire?  Or, a dreaded Strong No Hire?  Be ready to explain to the other interviewers why you said so, and be able to explain the questions you asked, and where they fell short.  This is where your notes are critical.

There are a few other tips/tricks in there -- hopefully that gets picked up in the Slideshare, including:
* Some questions I almost always ask at beginning/end of interviews, and why, such as "What did you do to prepare for this interview?", "What 3 changes do you think we need to make to our product, to blow away our customers", and "What 3 adjectives would your past co-workers/managers use to describe you?"
* How to structure interview loops, and why I recommend interviewing many candidates at once, if possible - it makes it so much easier to spot passion and preparedness when you interview several candidates on the same day, or in succession.
* How to prepare all of the interviewers (everyone should have assigned characteristics to interview for; everyone should agree that they will independently determine a hire/no-hire vote with detail supporting it; debrief within 24 hours)
* Why spending more than 2 minutes on a resume walk-thru is lazy/pointless, and a way to get quick overview, but force them to tell you the story of why it makes sense that your role is perfect for them (and you)
* What to look for with refererences (evidences of 'greatness'; dig on anything where they aren't raving about a candidate; everyone has dev areas)

I mentioned it on the final slide of the presentation, but it benefited greatly from contributions from Neil Roseman and Mark Suster (noticing a trend here?) -- and another awesome post from Brett Hurt (founder at both BazaarVoice and CoreMetrics).

How to find investors for your startup

I'm often asked to make introductions to investors, and the flow normally goes like this.

Startup: "We're ready to raise money.  Can you make introductions to investors?"

Me: "What investors do you want to meet?  Why are they a good fit for your startup?"

Startup: "..."


In all seriousness, it's very common for entrepreneurs to forget that investors have areas of focus, and the more they can target their potential investor pool, the better.  It shows investors that you're thorough, and increases the chance that your eventual investors can help you, because they've seen your industry before, they have relevant connections (other investors that like your space; bus dev partners; interested acquirers), and obviously have a deeper passion for what you're doing.

Some ideas for how you do this:
* Go to a white board and list your competitors, or even those in tangential spaces.  Then, go to AngelList or Crunchbase and find their investors, including Angels, Seed Funds, and Venture Capitalists
* Find conferences that focus on your industry.  Then look at the attendee lists and sponsors.  You'll often see the investor pool that's of interest, and you'll also likely find corporate investors (who get less coverage on Techcrunch) and below-the-radar contacts for you to consider.
* On another white board, list all of your wealthy friends or past coworkers.  Particularly focus on those who you think would absolutely rave about you.  They may not eventually invest in your company, but when they make introductions for you (because you'll ask them to do so), you know that the message they deliver will be extremely positive.  And, of course, they'll listen to your first pitches, to give you feedback and help you improve/hone your message.
* Talk to your friends (who know you well) and ask them for their list of favorite, most supportive, investors.  Again, they may not be as likely to actually invest in you, if they focus on other areas, but with a strong referral they're much more likely to meet with you, give you feedback, and possibly know other investors who may have a passion for your space.

Then, when you do reach out to people, you can include some of your lists, along with why you think they'd be interested in what you're doing.  When I see those lists, it makes it easier for me to remember if I have good contacts for them, and those lists also help spur other ideas (it's always easier to review a list than look at a blank page).  Plus, it make it fast and easy for you to really personalize your introduction mails, and shows that you do your homework and are detail-oriented (and respect/value my time, and the investor's time).

These ideas are all pretty basic, but are often overlooked.  What other suggestions do folks have?

Update: Joe Wallin suggested this great post by TA McCann - Raising Startup Funding - 7 Things you Need to be Prepared

How to ask for introductions (to investors, potential employers, etc)

I know this post has been written before, maybe even on this blog, but this issue comes up so frequently, that I can't be doing any harm by writing it again.  A variation can be found on Mark Suster's How to Ask for Help Favors and Intros post, but his goes into a lot more detail -- I'm going to focus on just two key parts of the introductions process.  And Tony Wright's How to Ask for an Introduction post is probably where I mentally stole this from (he tweeted a reminder, and I do remember reading and loving it). 

Many times per week, I'm asked to make introductions for people or startups.  I'm happy to do them, but the askers need to know that they truly do pile up, and if you don't make them easy for the person you're asking, you really lower the likelihood that we can help you.

So, here's my advice:

1) Make sure that I know you and/or your product well enough to make the intro.  If it isn't a deep connection, then you're actually putting my reputation at risk by asking me to do this for you.  And I don't always have the time to get to know you well enough.  It sounds harsh, but it's true.  So, focus your introduction requests on people who will rave about you.  If you don't know any of those people well, then you're putting the cart before the horse -- instead, start developing some of those relationships first (read Lines not Dots -- another great Suster post).

2) Make it very easy for me to make the introduction.  In fact, make it idiot-proof.  I always ask people to "write the introduction for me, and write it as if you're me, introducing you".  That's not (just) about saving me time.  It's because it allows you to put the introduction into context (i.e. you saw they invested in startup/industry x which has some similarities to what you're doing), link to any demos (people love functioning sites/apps), include any attachments, and include any imminent travel plans when you'll be in their neighborhood (even if you're lying, and will book the trip as soon as they say yes).

That's it.  Repeat steps #1 and #2 above and your requests for introductions will go much better.


p.s. Here's another great post on this topic from Roy Bahat at Bloomberg Beat.