Abstractions and Why Details Still Matter

Today, I came across an interview with Jerry Seinfield that left an impression on me. One paragraph in particular stood out:

If you’re efficient, you’re doing it the wrong way. The right way is the hard way. The show was successful because I micromanaged it—every word, every line, every take, every edit, every casting. That’s my way of life.

Jerry Seinfield

This reminded me of an essay by Joel Spolsky. In our work, we encounter many professionals who excel at “abstractions,” or what some might call “strategic” thinking. I must admit, I enjoy these abstractions. The process of moving up the layers of abstraction can be intellectually satisfying and enlightening.

This is not limited to professional work, but also extends to academia, where physicists are still searching for the Grand Unified Theory. We find patterns everywhere; our brains are pattern recognition & recall machines. We encode discrete experiences into abstract models so we can efficiently recall and apply them to our lives for swift decisions and actions. The right models can provide useful insights and even forecast the future to a certain degree.

However, just like an AI model that is versatile can still lose the exact details of the reality, high-level abstraction models can prevent us from being effective “where the rubber meets the road” especially when it comes to building your startup.

Most of these abstractions may not prove useful when faced with the question, “So what are we going to do here?” when supplied with the messy context of reality. Even worse, when someone is fixated on their model, reality itself may no longer be of interest to them.

As builders, we must recognize that while deriving insights and models will be useful for the future, we must also understand the constraints and context of the reality in which we operate to be effective. The only way to make a difference is to execute based on the cold, harsh reality and problem-solve, sometimes at the lowest level of detail.

I will end with a small story shared by Vic Gundotra, former VP at Google, about one of his experiences working with Steve Jobs, titled “Icon Ambulance.”:

One Sunday morning, January 6th, 2008 I was attending religious services when my cell phone vibrated. As discreetly as possible, I checked the phone and noticed that my phone said “Caller ID unknown”. I choose to ignore.

After services, as I was walking to my car with my family, I checked my cell phone messages. The message left was from Steve Jobs. “Vic, can you call me at home? I have something urgent to discuss” it said.

Before I even reached my car, I called Steve Jobs back. I was responsible for all mobile applications at Google, and in that role, had regular dealings with Steve. It was one of the perks of the job.

“Hey Steve – this is Vic”, I said. “I’m sorry I didn’t answer your call earlier. I was in religious services, and the caller ID said unknown, so I didn’t pick up”.

Steve laughed. He said, “Vic, unless the Caller ID said ‘GOD’, you should never pick up during services”.

I laughed nervously. After all, while it was customary for Steve to call during the week upset about something, it was unusual for him to call me on Sunday and ask me to call his home. I wondered what was so important?

“So Vic, we have an urgent issue, one that I need addressed right away. I’ve already assigned someone from my team to help you, and I hope you can fix this tomorrow” said Steve.

“I’ve been looking at the Google logo on the iPhone and I’m not happy with the icon. The second O in Google doesn’t have the right yellow gradient. It’s just wrong and I’m going to have Greg fix it tomorrow. Is that okay with you?”

Of course this was okay with me. A few minutes later on that Sunday I received an email from Steve with the subject “Icon Ambulance”. The email directed me to work with Greg Christie to fix the icon.

Since I was 11 years old and fell in love with an Apple II, I have dozens of stories to tell about Apple products. They have been a part of my life for decades. Even when I worked for 15 years for Bill Gates at Microsoft, I had a huge admiration for Steve and what Apple had produced.

But in the end, when I think about leadership, passion and attention to detail, I think back to the call I received from Steve Jobs on a Sunday morning in January. It was a lesson I’ll never forget. CEOs should care about details. Even shades of yellow. On a Sunday.

To one of the greatest leaders I’ve ever met, my prayers and hopes are with you Steve.

– Vic (his original post is no longer available due to Google+ being discontinued for consumer/personal users)

<From the old Apple website>

Performance Review Template

As you scale your startup beyond 20 people, you will start implementing a formal performance review process. The cadence could be once a quarter, once every 6 months, or sometimes, once a year.

The rule of thumb is that if your direct report is deeply surprised by the content in your feedback, it means you have failed to manage the person in the first place. The feedback and iteration should be a constant on-going process, so that you and your team member gets a chance to stay in sync, course correct, and improve each other continuously throughout the year.

Regardless, having a formal and structured review in a written form is still great for putting things into perspective, recognize the progress, and also reiterate on the important areas for improvement.

I’ve put together a relatively extensive performance review template that can be used with your direct reports. This may feel a bit longer than what startups use company-wide on a quarterly basis, but I’d encourage any committed professional to take the time to write a review of themselves, and get feedback from your leaders or people you collaborate with so that you can increase awareness, find the gaps between your understanding and others, and get to an alignment or agreement in terms of your goals, the state of your performance, and the direction for improvement.

For those in a hurry, here’s a google doc version of the template that you can “copy” to make it your own and use at your convenience.

  • Ask the reviewee to write this and share with the reviewer. The reviewer can provide feedback.
  • For “top 3” items below, it can be just one or two items. No need to make it three items unnecessarily.

Below is the list of questions for your reviewee to work on:

  • Goals & Results
    • What are your current top 3 goals?
    • How have you performed against those goals in the last week/month/quarter? Provide metrics
    • What successes and challenges did you experience? What was the most difficult problem you had to solve that you are proud of?
    • What can you do to ensure that those challenges won’t occur again in the future?
    • What are your new upcoming top 3 goals?
  • Organizational Awareness
    • What is the top priority for your company this quarter & this year?
    • What is the top priority for your team this quarter?
    • What is the primary constraint to achieving the top priority for your team? (note: It can’t be just “budget”)
  • Self-awareness
    • What are your top 3 signature strengths? How are you utilizing your strengths today?
    • What are your deadly weaknesses that’s preventing you from making greater progress?
    • How do you plan to augment or improve such weaknesses?
  • Feedback & Improvement
    • Feedback to others
      • Are you providing constructive feedback directly to people you work with in a timely manner?
      • Are those feedback also being delivered in a personally caring way? What went well vs didn’t go well?
    • Feedback from others
      • What constructive feedback have others been giving you?
      • How are you addressing that feedback?
    • Improving
      • What are the top 3 areas of improvement that you’ve been working on?
      • How is your progress in those areas in the past 3-6 months?
  • Leadership & Managing
    • How would you assess your leadership capabilities and social capital today?
    • Identify your leadership strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities to grow.
    • What challenges are you experiencing in communicating, supporting and getting what you need from others?
    • [For people managers]
      • How many direct reports do you have?
      • How often do you hold team meetings? What is the agenda/length?
      • How often do you hold 1-1 meetings? What is the agenda/length?
      • Who are your top performers on your team? How are you coaching & retaining them?
      • Who are your bottom performers on your team? What is your plan with each of them?
      • What key lessons have you learned or reminded as a people manager in the past 3-6 months?
  • Core Values
    • How strongly are you aligned to each of our core values? Rate from scale of 1-to-5, with 5 being the highest. Why did you rate them that way?
      • 5: I’m certain I’m within 1% of the people here with company-wide acknowledgement
      • 4: I’m within the top 10% of the people here and my manager and peers would endorse
      • 3: I’m within the top 25% of people that I believe I can demonstrate with strong examples
      • 2: I think I’m above average among the people here
      • 1: I think I’m at or below average here, so will need to improve on this
    • If you were to pick top 1-2 core values to improve or double down on, what are they and why? If you’d like to improve them, what are your action plans or rituals?
  • Innovation to the Organization
    • What have you done to make your role, or the company operations, more efficient or effective in the future?
    • What new ideas have you brought to the company that changes the trajectory of the company for the better in a significant way?

I hope the readers will find the template to be useful in helping your direct reports grow and become better contributors & leaders. 🙂

The Level 5 Ownership

Leaders are often called upon to resolve conflicts and problems. During this process, we all experience varying degrees of ownership from the people involved. The level of ownership significantly affects how we problem-solve with these individuals and the effectiveness of our efforts.

However, ownership is a concept that is often talked about but less understood. Below are five levels of ownership that will help leaders understand the differences.

Level 1: Lack of ownership

Response: “This is not my fault. I did what I was told to do.”

At this level, the person involved will actively distance themselves from the issue, fearing criticism or negative reflections on their performance review. The effort is focused on rationalizing their actions and explaining to others how they were not part of the problem.

The problem with this approach is that while the person may believe they are “safe” by doing this, it creates more doubt in others, especially among team members. It also results in a significant loss of social capital and reflects poorly on their character.

Level 2: Owning intent

Response: “My intent was good, so even if my actions weren’t ideal, I’m not responsible as it came from good intentions.”

This level is typically seen among young adults who have experienced social conflicts and have learned that they will be held accountable for problems. Conveying good intent is important to justify their positions and seemingly wrongdoings.

The problem is that even if the intent was good, if the actions do not align with the intent, people will ultimately remember the decisions and actions. Unless corrective actions are taken in the future, social capital will be lost at this level.

Level 3: Owning actions

Response: “My intent and actions were good, so even if the outcome isn’t good, I did my best, so I’m not responsible, as results were out of my hands.”

This level is commonly seen among working professionals where their managers hold them accountable for activities and “deliverables.” In business cultures that value hard work, focus on target dates, and celebrate launches, this may seem normal and harmless.

The problem is that even if the individual believes they did everything right, if they do not deliver on the outcomes, all recognitions of the actions taken can feel like patting each other on the back. The learning at this level is often limited to “we just have to try harder next time” or blaming the “environment” for missing the target.

Level 4: Owning outcomes

Response: “Although my intent and actions were good, the outcome wasn’t, therefore I am responsible.”

This level is sometimes seen among experienced professionals and seasoned leaders. They realize that owning actions is not enough and that they must ultimately deliver on their outcomes. They track the results as often as possible and course-correct their actions in real-time to change the trajectory of their results. They understand that unless they meet or exceed their outcomes, it is only a matter of time before they are held accountable or replaced.

The only minor issue at this level is that even if the individual succeeds, if their team still misses their goals, they are not winning as a whole.

Level 5: Owning collective outcomes

Response: “Although my intent, actions, and outcome I was personally responsible for were good, our team failed to deliver on the mission, so I ultimately feel responsible for our team. I believe there were ways I could have done things differently or even better to help our team succeed.”

This level is a rare quality even among seasoned leaders. They not only own their personal outcomes and the team they manage, but they expand their responsibility to their peers and the organization they are part of. They understand that unless their team and organization win, they are not truly winning. As a result, they mobilize their resources and efforts beyond their current roles and responsibilities to help elevate the people and teams around them.

At this level, the person takes ownership of not only their own actions and outcomes, but also the collective success of their team and organization. They are willing to go above and beyond to help their team and organization succeed and are not afraid to take on additional responsibility to make it happen.

What’s next?

Understanding these five levels of ownership will help leaders identify where they and their team members fall and make the necessary changes to improve. By moving up the levels of ownership, leaders will be able to take on more responsibility and drive better results for themselves, their teams, and their organizations.

Remember, owning the problem does not mean that you are solely responsible for fixing it. It means that you are willing to take on the challenge and do what it takes to find a solution, even if it means seeking help from others. Taking ownership allows you to be proactive in addressing issues, rather than reacting to them after the fact.

Leaders who embrace ownership create a culture of accountability and responsibility, leading to better outcomes and a more cohesive team. So the next time you face a problem, ask yourself: what level of ownership am I taking?

The Biggest Startup Ideas

As Sam mentioned in his essay “Hard Startups” & “Idea Generation” — picking a great idea that can become huge if it works is one of the most interesting seed a startup founder can plant early in their startup’s life cycle.

Instead of exploring the problem landscape myself, I decided to leverage the global knowledge of humankind by tapping into ChatGPT. Below are some of the “big” startup ideas that it generated. Initially it sounded realistic as many of our own largest customer base came from these industries, but as we dug further, some cool answers started popping up. Hope you enjoy them!

Prompt #1) What are some big startup ideas?

Starting a new business can be an exciting and rewarding experience, but it’s important to carefully consider your ideas and do thorough market research before jumping in. Here are a few potential startup ideas to consider:

  1. E-commerce platform: With the rise of online shopping, building an e-commerce platform could be a lucrative opportunity. You could sell a wide range of products or focus on a specific niche, such as sustainable fashion or home goods.
  2. On-demand services: With the popularity of apps like Uber and Instacart, there is a growing demand for on-demand services. Consider creating a platform that connects people with services they need in real time, such as cleaning, handyman services, or dog walking.
  3. Healthcare technology: The healthcare industry is ripe for disruption by tech startups. Consider developing a product or service that addresses a pain point in healthcare, such as improving patient communication or streamlining the billing process.
  4. Social media platform: With the proliferation of social media, there is always room for a new platform that offers a unique value proposition. Consider what your platform would offer that sets it apart from existing options.
  5. Sustainable energy: As climate change becomes an increasingly pressing issue, there is a growing demand for sustainable energy solutions. Consider developing a product or service that promotes renewable energy, such as solar panels or wind turbines.

Remember, these are just a few ideas to get you started. The most important thing is to find a problem that you are passionate about solving and conduct thorough market research to ensure there is demand for your solution.

Prompt #2) Any bigger ideas?

Here are a few more potential startup ideas that could potentially be considered “bigger” in terms of their scope and impact:

  1. Virtual reality: Virtual reality technology has the potential to revolutionize a wide range of industries, from entertainment to healthcare to education. Consider developing a product or service that leverages VR technology.
  2. Artificial intelligence: AI has the potential to transform many different industries, from finance to transportation to healthcare. Consider developing a product or service that utilizes AI in a unique and innovative way.
  3. Biotechnology: Biotechnology encompasses a wide range of fields, including genetic engineering, tissue engineering, and drug development. Consider developing a product or service that addresses a pressing problem in the biotech industry.
  4. Space exploration: With the increasing commercialization of space travel, there is a growing demand for innovative solutions to help humans explore and colonize other planets. Consider developing a product or service that contributes to this field.
  5. Education technology: With the shift to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a growing demand for education technology solutions. Consider developing a product or service that enhances the learning experience or makes education more accessible.

As with any startup idea, it’s important to conduct thorough market research and ensure that there is demand for your product or service before launching.

Prompt #3) How about even bigger startup ideas?

Here are a few more potential startup ideas that could potentially be considered even “bigger” in terms of their scope and impact:

  1. Sustainable agriculture: With the growing global population and increasing concerns about the environmental impact of traditional agriculture, there is a need for sustainable agriculture solutions. Consider developing a product or service that promotes sustainable farming practices or helps small farmers increase their productivity.
  2. Clean energy: The world is facing a climate crisis, and transitioning to clean energy sources is crucial to addressing this challenge. Consider developing a product or service that promotes the use of clean energy, such as solar or wind power.
  3. Water treatment: Access to clean water is a fundamental human right, but many people around the world do not have access to clean water. Consider developing a product or service that helps communities access clean water or treats contaminated water.
  4. Human augmentation: Advances in technology are enabling the development of products and services that enhance human capabilities, such as exoskeletons or bionic limbs. Consider developing a product or service that helps people overcome physical limitations or perform tasks more efficiently.
  5. Global health: Poor health can have a devastating impact on individuals and communities, and addressing global health challenges requires innovative solutions. Consider developing a product or service that addresses a pressing global health problem, such as a vaccine for a deadly disease or a portable medical device for use in resource-poor settings.

As with any startup idea, it’s important to conduct thorough market research and ensure that there is demand for your product or service before launching.

Prompt #4) Okay, but even bigger ideas?

Here are a few more potential startup ideas that could potentially be considered “even bigger” in terms of their scope and impact:

  1. Space colonization: As humans look to expand beyond Earth, there is a need for solutions that will enable us to live and thrive in space. Consider developing a product or service that contributes to the field of space colonization, such as a habitat for living on other planets or a system for generating food and water in space.
  2. Quantum computing: Quantum computers have the potential to revolutionize a wide range of fields, from medicine to finance to materials science. Consider developing a product or service that leverages quantum computing technology.
  3. Human-machine interfaces: As technology becomes increasingly integrated into our lives, there is a need for interfaces that allow us to seamlessly interact with machines. Consider developing a product or service that enhances the way humans and machines interact, such as a brain-machine interface or a natural language processing system.
  4. Advanced robotics: As robots become more sophisticated and capable, there is a growing demand for solutions that leverage advanced robotics technology. Consider developing a product or service that utilizes robots to perform tasks or interact with humans in new ways.
  5. Augmented reality: Augmented reality technology has the potential to transform the way we interact with the world around us, from education to entertainment to marketing. Consider developing a product or service that leverages AR technology in a unique and innovative way.

As with any startup idea, it’s important to conduct thorough market research and ensure that there is demand for your product or service before launching.

Prompt #5) Okay, one more round of even bigger, perhaps the biggest startup ideas please.

Here are a few more potential startup ideas that could potentially be considered “even bigger” or potentially “the biggest” in terms of their scope and impact:

  1. Interstellar travel: As humans look to explore the universe beyond our own solar system, there is a need for solutions that will enable us to travel to other stars. Consider developing a product or service that contributes to the field of interstellar travel, such as a propulsion system for a spacecraft or a habitat for living on another planet.
  2. Time travel: While time travel is currently considered to be science fiction, there are some theoretical frameworks that suggest it may be possible. Consider developing a product or service that leverages these theories to develop a solution for traveling through time.
  3. Teleportation: Teleportation, like time travel, is currently considered to be science fiction. However, there are some theoretical frameworks that suggest it may be possible to teleport objects or even living beings. Consider developing a product or service that leverages these theories to develop a solution for teleportation.
  4. Terraforming: Terraforming is the process of transforming a hostile environment, such as the surface of a planet or moon, into a place where humans can live and thrive. Consider developing a product or service that contributes to the field of terraforming, such as a system for creating an atmosphere or a method for generating food and water.
  5. Interstellar communication: As humans explore the universe beyond our own solar system, there is a need for solutions that will enable us to communicate with other civilizations. Consider developing a product or service that contributes to the field of interstellar communication, such as a system for transmitting messages over vast distances or a method for decoding messages from other civilizations.

As with any startup idea, it’s important to conduct thorough market research and ensure that there is demand for your product or service before launching. While these ideas may be considered “big” or “even bigger,” it’s important to keep in mind that they are currently considered to be at the cutting edge of science and technology and may not be feasible with current technology.

Mini-YC within a Growth Stage Startup

An early-stage founder asked me over dinner, how we explore new paths and product ideas to accelerate growth at Sendbird. I’d like to share a program we introduced earlier this year at our company. We spun up a small tiger team to tackle a new idea. Operating like a small startup, this team was self-contained to a certain extent (e.g. PM, engineer, & designer), was given the autonomy to go talk to customers, pitch an idea of an offering, price things and sell if they needed to, and prototype a working model. An executive (in this case myself) was sponsoring the initiative, so that we can unblock resources and processes along the way.

Living and working together 24/7

Initially, the team booked an airbnb in Vancouver Canada, and lived & worked there together for a month. I also flew out to spend 2 weeks with the team (I had to come back earlier due to our quarterly board meeting) but for me it was one of the most productive times since Sendbird entered growth/later stage!

Continue reading “Mini-YC within a Growth Stage Startup”

On Motivation

Someone recently asked me “how can I motivate my team member when the market is down and the value of their stock options may not grow as quickly?” I initially tried to answer the question by focusing on the odds of startup valuation still growing faster than other asset classes, and other non-linear & intrinsic value of social capital accumulated at startups that may introduce new opportunities later in life. But I didn’t find my answers satisfying at all. I thought about why.

Over time, experience has taught me that more often than not, defining the right problem to solve is far more important than the solution itself. Perfect solution to a wrong problem is just plain wasteful.

So how can one motivate their team member when things are getting tough? What are the mechanics behind motivation that can give us insights into finding the right solution to the problem?

Continue reading “On Motivation”

Entrepreneur’s Flywheel

Flywheel is a relatively straightforward concept to understand, but still worth reading this book for more practical tips when you’re drafting your flywheels.

Below is an example of a high-level flywheel crafted for entrepreneurs. The inner loop is when founders start a company themselves to solve a big problem and create value.

<Entrepreneur’s Flywheel>
Continue reading “Entrepreneur’s Flywheel”

Drivers, Not Passengers

“Leading for Hypergrowth by Raising Expectations, Increasing Urgency, and Elevating Intensity”

Frank Slootman is Chairman and CEO of Snowflake. He recently wrote a short book on business management “Amp It Up”, sharing his experience from days at Data Domain, ServiceNow, and Snowflake.

In his book, Chapter 6 talks about “hiring drivers, not passengers” and below is some excerpts from the book:

Passengers are people who don’t mind simply being carried along by the company’s momentum, offering little or no input, seemingly not caring much about the direction chosen by management. They are often pleasant, get along with everyone, attend meetings promptly, and generally do not stand out as troublemakers. They are often accepted into the fabric of the organization and stay there for many years.

The problem is that while passengers can often diagnose and articulate a problem quite well, they have no investment in solving it. They don’t do the heavy lifting. They avoid taking strong positions at the risk of being wrong about something. They can take any side of an issue, depending on how the prevailing winds are blowing. In large organizations especially, there are many places to hide without really being noticed. …

Drivers, on the other hand, get their satisfaction from making things happen, not blending in with the furniture. They feel a strong sense of ownership for their projects and teams and demand high standards from both themselves and others. They exude energy, urgency, ambition, even boldness. Faced with a challenge, they usually say, “Why not” rather than “That’s impossible.”

These qualities make drivers massively valuable. Finding, recruiting, rewarding, and retaining them should be among your top priorities. Recognize them privately and publicly, promote them, and elevate them as example of what others should aspire to. That will start waking up those who are merely along for the ride. Celebrate people who own their responsibilities, take and defend clear positions, argue for their preferred strategies, and seek to move the dial.

Continue reading “Drivers, Not Passengers”

Managing Time Horizons

I recently came across the clearest definition of a bubble in an asset class:

“When investors have different goals and time horizons—and they do in every asset class— prices that look ridiculous to one person can make sense to another…

Bubbles form when the momentum of short-term returns attract enough money that the makeup of investors shifts from mostly long term to mostly short term. That process feeds on itself. As traders push up short-term returns, they attract even more traders. Before long, the dominant market price-setters with the most authority are those with shorter time horizons.

Bubbles aren’t so much about valuations rising. That’s just a symptom of something else: time horizons shrinking as more short-term traders enter the playing field.”

The Psychology of Money (by Morgan Housel)

What was particularly impressive about this framework was that it can be applied to any forms of investment — including people. When you have a “different” time horizon when working with someone, your behaviors will change.

Continue reading “Managing Time Horizons”

Thinking Second-order Effects

💡 I was going to write a longer piece on this topic, but found this article to be helpful.

One of the key elements of being better in leadership, strategy, and organizational changes is being able to think and anticipate second-order effects.

When you want to roll out programs, systematic changes, (re)budgeting, headcount planning, introducing new processes, thinking beyond the first intended first-order, being able to navigate second-order effects will be critical in how successful those initiatives will be. Most outcomes will be lagging and have lasting/trickling effect throughout the organization, so the quality of the decision and the thoughtfulness matters a lot to save a lot of people’s time, effort, and pain.

Continue reading “Thinking Second-order Effects”
%d bloggers like this: