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Sunday, 30 June 2013 18:00
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You know bored employees often quit, so why aren't your pausing every once in awhile to assess your top performers' boredom levels?

Sometimes your best employee leaves because he wants to move somewhere sunny or because his wife got a new gig on the other side of the country. Sometimes that uber productive engineer can’t resist the lure of her own startup or your communications ace has decided he wants to be a yoga instructor instead.

When it comes to reasons like these, there’s very little you can do to keep the team you’ve sweated to put together intact. But most employees don’t leave for reasons like these. Many employees leave simply because they’re bored.

And if you let them, know you could probably have prevented their aggravating departure with just a little bit of attention and care, writes Silicon Valley engineering manager and author Michael Lopp on his blog.

In the excellent post, Lopp points out the simple but powerful truth that "boredom shows up quietly and appears to pose no immediate threat. This makes it both easy to address and easy to ignore" before going on to offer a simple three-pronged approach to early detection of employee boredom:

Any noticeable change in daily routine. A decrease in productivity is a great early sign that something’s up, but what you are looking for is any change in their routine. Increased snark? Unexpected vacations? Later arrivals? Earlier departures? Anything that strikes you as out of the ordinary for someone whose day you are familiar with is worth considering. The root cause of this change may have nothing to do with boredom, and the best way is figure that out is…

You ask, "Are you bored?" Even if you don’t have a gut feeling, it’s a good question to randomly ask your team. When I ask, I look you straight in the eyes and if you can’t stare me in the face and answer, I’m going to keep digging until you look me in the eye. Remember, the goal here is to discover boredom before they know it, and the act of a simple question might be just the mental impetus they need to see the early signs in themselves.

They tell you. And you listen. The reality is that someone is going to tell you they’re bored quietly and when you least expect it. They’ll tell you halfway through your 1:1 and they won’t use the word bored. They’ll say something innocuous like, “…and I really don’t know what to do next,” and you’re going to blow right by the most important thing they’ve said in a while because you’re worried about your next meeting.

While these techniques might not sound like earth-shattering innovations, as Lopp points out at the end of the third point, just because something is simple and effective, doesn’t mean you’re not too distracted to actually do it. So what if you pause long enough to ponder whether your team is bored and listen to what they’re actually saying about their level of engagement and come to the uncomfortable conclusion that these days they’re not exactly finding their work scintillating?

Lopp’s post has suggestions. A half dozen solid ones, in fact. They range from letting bored employees experiment to aggressively removing the noise from their workday and simply "telling them what the hell is going on." Check out the post for details.

Are you "too busy" to stop and notice your top performers’ boredom level?

Sunday, 30 June 2013 18:00
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You know bored employees often quit, so why aren't your pausing every once in awhile to assess your top performers' boredom levels?

Sometimes your best employee leaves because he wants to move somewhere sunny or because his wife got a new gig on the other side of the country. Sometimes that uber productive engineer can’t resist the lure of her own startup or your communications ace has decided he wants to be a yoga instructor instead.

When it comes to reasons like these, there’s very little you can do to keep the team you’ve sweated to put together intact. But most employees don’t leave for reasons like these. Many employees leave simply because they’re bored.

And if you let them, know you could probably have prevented their aggravating departure with just a little bit of attention and care, writes Silicon Valley engineering manager and author Michael Lopp on his blog.

In the excellent post, Lopp points out the simple but powerful truth that "boredom shows up quietly and appears to pose no immediate threat. This makes it both easy to address and easy to ignore" before going on to offer a simple three-pronged approach to early detection of employee boredom:

Any noticeable change in daily routine. A decrease in productivity is a great early sign that something’s up, but what you are looking for is any change in their routine. Increased snark? Unexpected vacations? Later arrivals? Earlier departures? Anything that strikes you as out of the ordinary for someone whose day you are familiar with is worth considering. The root cause of this change may have nothing to do with boredom, and the best way is figure that out is…

You ask, "Are you bored?" Even if you don’t have a gut feeling, it’s a good question to randomly ask your team. When I ask, I look you straight in the eyes and if you can’t stare me in the face and answer, I’m going to keep digging until you look me in the eye. Remember, the goal here is to discover boredom before they know it, and the act of a simple question might be just the mental impetus they need to see the early signs in themselves.

They tell you. And you listen. The reality is that someone is going to tell you they’re bored quietly and when you least expect it. They’ll tell you halfway through your 1:1 and they won’t use the word bored. They’ll say something innocuous like, “…and I really don’t know what to do next,” and you’re going to blow right by the most important thing they’ve said in a while because you’re worried about your next meeting.

While these techniques might not sound like earth-shattering innovations, as Lopp points out at the end of the third point, just because something is simple and effective, doesn’t mean you’re not too distracted to actually do it. So what if you pause long enough to ponder whether your team is bored and listen to what they’re actually saying about their level of engagement and come to the uncomfortable conclusion that these days they’re not exactly finding their work scintillating?

Lopp’s post has suggestions. A half dozen solid ones, in fact. They range from letting bored employees experiment to aggressively removing the noise from their workday and simply "telling them what the hell is going on." Check out the post for details.

Are you "too busy" to stop and notice your top performers’ boredom level?

Friday, 28 June 2013 04:14
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You say you believe in your idea. In your people. In your plan. Then run your business that way, and you'll have no regrets.

The startup-childbirth analogy ranks among our most overworked business clichés. We talk less about the deathbed vigil that accompanies failure. But as this recent Tumblr post attests, that metaphor is just as apt. Founders watch helplessly as their companies expire, comforting themselves with memories of early promise. Ultimately, though, they descend into recriminations (directed at themselves and others); regret over opportunities squandered; resolutions to do right by survivors; and--above all--personal desolation. Post-mortem, their grieving traces the arc described by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five-stage model. Though perhaps “acceptance” is made easier by the investment community’s lionization of failure.

I read the Tumblr post, titled "My Startup Has 30 Days to Live," during a break at a conference for entrepreneurs from emerging economies, sponsored by Michael Porter’s AllWorld Network. In the session before the break, Alan Lewis, chairman of the $700 million travel company Grand Circle, had asked attendees to raise their hands if their revenues exceeded $25 million. No hands rose. (It was early in the morning. The larger-company CEOs must have been coffee-ing up.) Lewis seemed disappointed as he looked around the room. “Eighty percent of you won’t be here in five years,” he said, “because you are not able to grow.”

Lewis wasn’t urging attendees to climb aboard “the VC rocket-ship,” as the 30 Days post calls it. He was talking about momentum and taking risks and bringing on people who naturally set their sails for the next level. But his words touched off the same kind of insecurity felt by the Tumblr writer. Mentors and investors had advised that mournful soul that there is but one goal--to get big--and only one way to get big--to do it fast. So he made a series of against-the-gut decisions that led to his start-up’s impending demise.

That post released an avalanche of comments on Y Combinator’s Hacker News, debating--among other things--the nature and purpose of a start-up. Some of it devolved into Valley-centric semantics. Is a bootstrapped start-up really a start-up or just a small business? Imagine a pause, and then a Seinfeldian “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

The Tumblr entrepreneur suggests that had his company eschewed the accelerator and accelerator principles, it could have succeeded. Of course that supposition is impossible to evaluate. Another speaker at the AllWorld conference was Ken Morse, managing director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center and a serial entrepreneur. Morse railed against incubators, which he contends both isolate and insulate start-ups in unhealthy fashion. But Morse also offered a panegyric for ambition, exhorting attendees to create billion-dollar babies.

High tech is a rarified, occasionally wacky world that values innovation above all. Yet it treats entrepreneurship as a formulaic enterprise, in which companies strive to create unique value propositions while pursuing identical goals and operating from identical rulebooks.

What’s sad about the Tumblr post is that it confesses not only failure, but also lack of courage. The entrepreneur loved and trusted his idea and his people. But he didn’t love and trust them enough to resist the presiding fast-growth culture. He believed in his creation’s distinctiveness. But he didn’t believe in it enough to pursue a distinctive path. He dreamed of success. But he hesitated to insist that his personal definition of success had value.

There is glory when you succeed on your own terms; satisfaction when you succeed on someone else’s terms; and regret tempered with growth when you fail on your own terms. When you fail on someone else’s terms, there is only failure.

Friday, 28 June 2013 02:30
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TechStars Accelerator Program.

Not all incubators are created equal--and with more of them out there, you need to choose where you apply wisely.

The age of the accelerator is officially upon us.

Here is but a glimpse into the proliferation of start-up programs in the U.S. and Europe as reported by U.K. research firm NESTA:

Since 2005 there has been year-on-year growth in the number of companies taking this route through their early-stages. Y Combinator has taken on more and more companies each year, but the main driver of growth has been that new programs have been created. Techstars now operates in four U.S. cities and is growing a global network of peers. In Europe, the number of programmes has risen from just one in 2007 to over 10 in 2011.

Simply put: there are a ton of incubators and accelerators to which you can apply. But not surprisingly, as the quantity of programs has gone up, the quality of the aggregate has arguably gone down.

So if you're thinking of applying to an accelerator or incubator, know that they're not all created equal. It's your job to figure out not only which one is best, but also which one is best for you.

In a panel Thursday at the PreMoney conference in San Francisco put on by 500 Startups (an accelerator itself), four leaders in the world of start-up accelerators came together to discuss the business models of their respective companies. It also turned out to offer some pretty good advice to entrepreneurs on what they should be looking for.

The panel included Christine Tsai, a partner at 500 Startups; Thomas Korte, the founder of AngelPad; Garry Tan, a partner at Y Combinator; Sam Teller, managing director and co-founder of Launchpad LA; and Katie Rae, managing partner of TechStars Boston.

Here are five basic principles to keep in mind:

1) Location is key. "Back in the olden days, if you were a scholar of any sort, you would go to Rome and Athens," said Garry Tan. "If you're serious [about tech start-ups], you come to Silicon Valley." It's also worth noting that you should be in the best place for your particular industry. So if it's media or fashion, New York may win out over California. The point is to choose the location wisely--it can have a material impact on the success of your company in its early stages.

2) Look at the growth--and cohesion of the companies who have graduated. Katie Rae, a partner at TechStars Boston, says she judges the success of her classes based not only the growth of the firms that graduate, but also whether or not the teams were able to stay together in the long run.

3) The IRR of the firm. The internal rate of return on a given incubator might not be the easiest figure to come by, but from a financial perspective, it's important to see if the program has a proven track record of producing "winners." Beyond IRR, look at the quality of the engineering talent on-boarded by graduates of the program. That can be a good indicator of the program's eventual success.

4) How much capital raised by portfolio companies. This is a metric you should track, but not obsess about. "We do not tell them to focus too much on fundraising," Garry Tan says. "People get so focused on fundraising that they don't focus on the business."

5) Can the accelerator expand your network? Ultimately, the most valuable thing about an accelerator is the people. Check out who else is involved--both advisors and other entrepreneurs entering the class--and then make them your best friends.

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