ON MANAGING TEAMS
By Dean Clough
The photo above is of Brian Wilson, a founding member and the leader of The Beach Boys. He is directing the band and other musicians in a studio during the recording of the album "Pet Sounds". I think anyone that has managed people can relate to the layers of emotion and focus the photo reveals. And while I have no delusions my management skills approach those of Mr. Wilson's in the studio, I will share via a short series of essays my recent experience in successfully developing an effective and happy team.
In the Fall of 2018, I began assuming the leadership of a large international technology program. The team consisted of 25 engineers and Building Information Modeling (BIM) staff located in Oakland, Portland, Dallas, and London. Here and in some upcoming articles, I will describe the management framework I developed in my role. It transformed a dysfunctional, unhappy and diverse (in both location and personally) group of people in a relatively brief period of time. I am hopeful you will find it an informal methodology and a cultural philosophy that can be used with most teams, and especially now.
Our particular team was responsible for the design and engineering of the telecom networks at 9 of Facebook's global data centers. It is at these data centers that Instagram, WhatsApp, and Facebook itself are hosted. As you'd guess, that means they are amongst the largest facilities of their type on Earth. Each of the 9 campuses on which we worked consisted of 6 to 12 buildings, each shaped like the letter "H". Both vertical "lines" of the "H" are a quarter mile in length. Here is one of 6 buildings at their site outside of Des Moines.
Suffice to say these are large and complex endeavors by any definition; my team was a small but integral part of the construction of these mission-critical mega sites.
But the team, which I joined earlier in 2018, was in rough shape. Overworked, and frustrated to a person, the team was literally mutinous, and that is how I came to replace the original manager who had hired me. But having analyzed the situation, I knew applying common program, project and team management principles wasn't going to be enough.
Over the years, I've been exposed to an impressive array of management frameworks and methodologies; there are obviously many, and some even work. I was first indoctrinated in 1991, with Ernst & Young's long-gone "Navigator". I also am a Project Management Professional (PMP), and in 40+ years in business, I have read and utilized any number of approaches in managing programs, projects, teams, and myself.
So why create another? Because I came to see that the old paradigms of management are increasingly irrelevant, if they were not already. There was little desire from my staff to dedicate an inordinate portion of their lives to their employer, for example. There have been huge improvements in the software tools available, for another, yet here was a team using nothing to manage their activities. And this was all pre-virus: working remotely and "The Great Resignation" only increases the need for productive coordination and happy teams.
In the essays that follow, I will share The Helix Methodology that I developed, and its implementation. It is my hope you and your team will find it (or even just a part) useful.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
After reaching a consensus on what needs improvement, it is time to do it.
Hard Changes tend to be unique to each situation. Here, I propose two Soft Changes all teams should make.
Now the fun part.
There are only 3 Steps and The Helix itself; here is a brief description of each. I will go in to more detail on some of these subjects in future essays.
Step 1: Analysis
It all begins with an objective assessment of your team, your customers, and yourself. There are plenty of tools and techniques out there, including SWOT, gap analysis, etc. A primer on business analysis is beyond the scope of this monograph, but it's not complicated. The following assumes you've been a team participant in some capacity for a few months, at a minimum.
ID and interview the team members individually
Ask what they see as the pros and cons of how they do their own work and interact with others, including internal and external clients
Ask if they were given a magic wand, what would they change/fix?
Do the same with your customers but adjust the questions accordingly
If you are the leader of the team, you must also objectively assess your own strengths and weaknesses
At this point, I like to write these findings up as a narrative, which can be shared first with superiors, and then with the team itself. Ideally, a consensus is reached with both regarding the current state of affairs.
The Helix provides both a framework for making the needed changes identified during your analysis, and also the foundations of a team philosophy.
I break the changes down in to two categories, Hard Changes and Soft Changes. By hard, I refer to more functional things like upping the quality of client deliverables, adjusting the relationship with the customer, creating/fixing scalable internal processes, and staffing additions/deletions. Soft changes are more cultural in nature, and involves life/work balance, minimizing distractions, minimizing or eliminating meetings, etc. Both types of change are holistic and thus are the vertical strands in The Helix.
What binds the team together is a certain tone or vibe that you set as a manager. Each team is a different - the words and tone I needed to set was specific to this team in a given place and time. You may need 5 words, less, or more. In our case, the team was beyond frazzled and burned out, so changing that environment was what we needed. You may be able to create an acronym, as I did. CRETE, a beautiful island and something that fit the mood I sought for the team. Hokey? Perhaps. But it worked and it was easy to remember. I will talk more in later installments how I used this image, but pictures are powerful. This is Crete.
And this aspect is also based on science. Many of my horizontal strands are labeled with things that have been proven to be hallmarks of successful teams, via peer-reviewed research. I was very much influenced by the Harvard Business Review publication "On Teams", which cited research that the 3 single most reliable indicators of a high-performing, happy team were these traits:
I think anyone that's managed people knows that these are central to success - whatever the environment. The key is to understand what's happening with your team, individually and as a group, and then bind the Hard and Soft Changes together with the appropriate environment.
Step 2: Implement and Step 3: Actualize
In future essays, I will give you some specific examples of the Hard and Soft Changes we made, how I rolled out CRETE as our cultural philosophy, and how it all turned out.
Thus far, I’ve introduced The Helix Methodology, what led to its creation, and the first step in its use, Analysis. As the manager or leader of a team, at this point you should have a good feel for your group’s positives and where there are opportunities for improvement. Unless you have a consensus with your own superiors and the team regarding where you’re at, you should not move forward – you have more work to do. But if there is agreement on what needs improvement, we can move into implementing the changes intended to address your team’s specific issues.
It is important at this point to recall that a methodology is just that: a method of doing things. In this case, The Helix Methodology is an approach to leadership. But as I’ve emphasized, each situation is different, and you must tailor the methodology to your own environment. But the approach I advocate can be generalized: the binding together of the Hard and Soft changes necessary for optimal performance, via the tone you set (ideally, via a memorable acronym) as manager.
Here are some examples of Hard Changes; I'll discuss Soft Changes, and how The Helix connects them together, in future essays. In all cases, I encourage you to carefully select where collaboration with your team is called for (“Hey, what does everyone think about this?”) vs. direction (“Here’s how we’re doing this from now on”). Don’t be afraid to lead – not everything requires consensus.
By hard changes, I of course do not refer to their difficulty. Instead, I mean modifications to the operational and functional aspects of your team. Whether your team has internal or external clients, most (actually, all, in my experience over 40 years) could use changes and improvement in areas like:
the quality of client deliverables;
the timeliness of client deliverables;
the relationship with the client;
the relationship among team members;
internal operations and their scalability; and/or
team staffing changes.
This is a just a start, and again, you can’t skip Step 1: Analysis – every team and every situation is unique. But as above, I have never seen a team that couldn’t improve in some manner, typically in one of the areas I’ve listed.
As in our case, the outcome of my own Analysis revealed that we had real issues with our client. In my interviews with the team, I learned that while we typically made deadlines, it was only under great duress and via Herculean hours. And our quality wasn’t always what it should be when each deliverable was a race to the finish. The reason identified by my team were constant client changes, often late in the game.
But the problem had more of a deeper root cause than a client being typical. Under the previous manager, contracts, and more importantly, change orders, were not being issued, and when they were, they’d months, or even years, late. In fact, I discovered that there were $5.7 million in unissued contracts and change orders. This would explain why the client felt free to make changes right up until critical deadlines – they didn’t see a bill for it because we couldn’t send an invoice without a contract in place.
While it was not a simple sales job internally, I addressed most of this by implementing a scalable program management infrastructure. Specifically, I insisted upon a single source of truth for who’s doing what when, and how long it will take. One might be surprised by how few companies and their teams operate with such a common-sense foundation.
Today’s cloud-based tools and their ability to be integrated mean this doesn’t have to be particularly difficult. We utilized the enterprise addition of Asana, which among the many options available, is an excellent choice as the operational foundation for any size team. By integrating it with the utility Instagantt and Microsoft Word, we completely turned things around. We had rock-solid estimates of how long deliverables would take and could now manage to them; we had transparent accountability for who was doing what and by when; we cleaned up the contract/change order backlog; and most importantly, both master contracts and change orders could be issued in real time. These changes combined transformed both our own team and began to repair our relationship with our client.
The tools you use will vary by case. Where Asana was right in our case, fixing your team’s use of HubSpot might be your challenge, or implementing the correct Salesforce modules for your business. It has simply never been easier to bring structure and order to virtually any working group – at least those willing to do the work.
What is not easy are staffing changes – at least not when it means you must move someone off of your team – or out of the whole company. Even the positive of hiring people and having the budget for it can be stressful. And that is because of a business cliché I have repeatedly found to be true:
Hiring is guessing. Firing is knowing.
While it is clearly more enjoyable, hiring people is an art, not a science. But when you’ve had time to get to know and work with an individual, a manager knows when someone is not a fit. It just takes one or two people that possess some combination of incompetence, a poor attitude, or real malevolence to take down a whole team or destroy morale. While one cannot be cavalier nor reckless in the termination of staff, doing nothing when there’s an obvious problem is a bad idea, and it can impact everyone involved.
Not every team can experience addition by subtraction; a lot simply need addition by addition - hiring more people. Human resourcing is not an expertise of mine, but do consider your existing team and its dynamic when adding staff.
Previously, I’ve written about the Hard Changes teams can make to reach peak functional performance. But that’s only half of the picture – and only half of The Helix.
Soft Changes entail something equally as important – you, your people, and the culture in which they work. There are countless books and articles on business culture – this is not one of them. Not only is it beyond the scope of what I’m trying to accomplish, I also am not qualified. But I have had success in two specific domains of business culture, within large project and program management environments.
Whereas the Hard Changes each team makes will typically be unique, I propose Soft Changes are different. I believe most teams need to make similar changes culturally, and they fall under two categories. The first, Servant Leadership, is about you, the manager, and your leadership philosophy. It is about putting your team first, even ahead of your own professional aspirations. The second, Time Affluence, is about your team and entails letting your team do what they want to do: perform great work and then enjoy their private lives with their friends and family.
Often and in my experience, it all begins with you as the team’s leader and manager: are you demonstrating to them that you care? How is your own attitude? Do you perform in a manner you wish your team to emulate? Don’t expect a cultural nor attitudinal sea change if you can’t look at yourself in the mirror, at least most days. Thus, I propose the Soft Changes made to a team begin with the manager.
Start by asking yourself: what is my leadership style? Quiet authority? A master of corporate politics? A brilliant technician? Whatever your answer, I say most managers would benefit by prioritizing Servant Leadership above all.
The concept of Servant Leadership is not original to me, by any means. Indeed, it could be argued it dates to the King of Prussia from 1740 - 1786, Frederick II, who proclaimed himself “The First Servant of The State”. In modern times, it was a 1932 book by Hermann Karl Hesse, entitled Journey to The East that influenced Robert Greenleaf in 1970 to publish an essay called “The Servant Leader”. In it, he defined it as such:
"The servant-leader is servant first . . . it begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions . . ."
Put more simply: To lead is to serve, and to serve is to lead. By putting your team ahead of yourself, you will establish credibility and trust in way not possible if your focus is instead on your next promotion.
What does Servant Leadership mean in practice? There has been much research on the subject, and what strikes me is the consistency in the findings. First, the studies show the concept works. Teams led by managers that actively practice Servant Leadership perform better. Second, the same words and concepts appear in nearly every major scholarly paper:
empathy, listening, healing, awareness, persuasion, empowerment, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, staff development
For me personally, it’s always meant empathy. I am fortunate to have a broad set of experiences from which to draw upon, which makes it easier to put myself in someone else’s shoes. You will not do very well if you can’t establish a rapport with your team; that’s made easier if you understand what each person is experiencing in their role on your team and manage them accordingly.
I also have often found myself managing people whose skills are superior to mine, in terms of the subject matter involved. Anyone managing a team of top-flight senior engineers, programmers, or creatives should know their role is in the background, doing everything humanly possible to create an environment where each team member can perform optimally. That might mean lobbying senior leadership for higher performance workstations, different work from home policies, or better training.
The idea is that everything follows from dedicating yourself to serving your team. Which, when done properly, results in superior performance and is true leadership.
As with the concept of Servant Leadership, much of what constitutes my approach here is gleaned from the work of others, specifically the must-read “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work,” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Many others have written on the same general topic of burnout at work, while others have focused on the increased blurring of work and life, post-pandemic, as more work from home more often. All of those, but most importantly, my own lived experience, has led me to believe the ultimate wealth is Time Affluence. Having more time under their own control - for both work and life - is what your team almost certainly wants, more than anything else, including more money.
For a lot of years, and likely benevolently, many companies strove to liken the business to one’s own family, as in: “Hey, we’re like family here.” An extension of that is the company cafeteria or any other nice perk – “Hey, we take care of our family here.” Except all of it is aimed at making the 60 hour or more work weeks more palatable, for you and your actual family. This is where it all begins: the mindset is that it is somehow honorable and/or right to grind and to have your life be a juggling act of work and life, with never enough time for either. I advocate shattering that mindset, and putting work in its proper perspective.
First, accept the fact that no matter how incredible the company, its management, and its culture, your staff would still prefer to be home with their family and friends.
There is a sea-change occurring in the working world, where increasing numbers are recognizing that in America, we’ve allowed the work – life balance to get out of kilter. Many recognize we must set things right and reprioritize where work falls in one’s overall life.
I put that into practice by insisting upon a maximum of a 50 hours of work in a week. This I borrowed from The Agile Manifesto, a part of which is to establish an environment where the pace of work can be sustained indefinitely. Anyone that has done it can attest to the fact that anything beyond that is not sustainable, maybe for a short period, but certainly not forever.
Further, it is a scientific fact that people’s effectiveness drastically falls off after about 50 hours working in a week. Emergencies and exceptions of course will occur, but the fact remains that your team will be perform better and more consistently by insisting upon a gate on working hours. 50 hours is enough work in a week.
At this point, many roll their eyes and exclaim “Well, you just don’t understand my work environment.” I do and I still disagree. That is because it is hard for people imaging getting all their work done in 50 hours – given the volume of distractions we allow in the typical workplace.
Slack. Zoom meetings. In-person meetings. Staff meetings. Working lunches. Working coffees. You get the idea. Apart from understanding the realistic place in your staffs’ lives that work holds, employing this concept is at the core of The Helix Methodology. Whatever soft changes (or hard for that matter) you make, they must be made with the idea of reducing distractions for everyone, as that is the path to Time Affluence.
I will use an anecdote from “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work” to illustrate. Imagine getting on a plane flight from New York to Los Angeles, typically about a 5 to 6 hour ride. But on this plane, you have no book, no magazine, no music, no movies, and no TV. And no colleagues onboard. Instead, you have your notebook computer and Internet access. Now, picture your own job, and how much real work product you could produce in that 5 or 6 hours of having nothing taking away your focus. By minimizing distractions, everyone should be able to have at least that much time for uninterrupted work each day.
I get that for some, the meetings are the work. But what happens coming out of those meetings? Who is following up, and are there too many distractions for them to do so effectively? And I also understand that in the new working paradigm, Zoom meetings are simply a requirement.
But not always.
Could material be written and posted to your team’s intranet site, such that people could review at their leisure, without a meeting? Could the issue be addressed via asynchronous communication, i.e., an email exchange? The problem with meetings is that they are in general, a big time sink, yet typically provide minimal benefit, especially in relation to the time wasted.
An example. When I assumed the leadership of my program at TEECOM, my predecessor had insisted upon, despite growing howls of protest, weekly staff meetings. Now, our team had 25 members in 5 international locations, and these meetings took at least 2 hours. The cost of these meetings, in hard dollars and the damage to morale, is hard to overstate. 2 hours of each person droning on about what they did last week, and what they will do next week was a complete and utter waste of time.
Do you have long weekly staff meetings? Why? Agreed it’s important for everyone on the team to see each other, preferably often. But I got our weekly staff meetings down to a maximum of 30 minutes (often they were 15), and I assure you, our work didn’t suffer and the staff was markedly happier.
How to start, apart from the obvious? Dump the “meeting Tetris” that is the typical professional’s business calendar. You know the look – a schedule filled with appointments, with tiny slivers of time for one to do their actual job. Allow and even encourage your staff to limit the ability for others to schedule time on their calendars, at least to the degree possible. In sum, the mindset is that meetings should be one of the last options, not the first.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another distraction engine, that being corporate-focused instant messaging systems, Slack being the most popular. Now, Slack and its ilk have a place, indeed a major place, in modern corporate communications. But to what extent? If you’re using Slack beyond its intended use, that being for quick and frictionless communication when necessary, you’re likely overdoing it. I urge you to use Slack and similar tools in the way they were intended.
I will conclude with a simple mental exercise. Imagine an environment where your supervisor sincerely and actively has your back, and creates an environment where you can do your best work. You have time to focus on the tasks for which you’re responsible, but also time to decompress and get away from work. Would you like to work at such a company? So would your team.
That is my answer to those that would deem the Soft Changes of The Helix Methodology as unrealistic and/or idealistic. Until you try it, you will not know there is another way. The concepts of Servant Leadership and Time Affluence work.
In my next essay, I’ll cover the fun part – the horizontal strands that bind the Hard and Soft changes together, completing The Helix.
CONNECTING THE STRANDS AS ACTUALIZATION
Do you know why startups go out of business? Bad idea? Bad management? Bad brand? All of the above?
No. Most companies go out of business because they run out of money. And they run out of money because unsuccessful entrepreneurs often forget something simple: until you're generating regular sales of whatever product or service you're selling, nothing else really matters.
Repeat after me: nothing happens until somebody sells something. In fact, it may be the ultimate truth in business. I call activities that aren't directly related to selling something "playing company".
Playing company comes in many guises. It can be you spending hours/days/weeks deciding upon the color of your logo. It can be your team grinding over which invoicing module to use from what cloud accounting service. I recently coached a would-be entrepreneur that his seventy-eight page business plan was mostly wasted effort. It can really be anything that doesn't involve creating, introducing and selling your product or service.
But selling what? I introduce these concepts here and in this manner because it's when I've seen otherwise promising businesses go awry. Failed companies often spend far too much time tweaking their product or service internally, instead of rapidly defining what they're offering and going to market ASAP.
And that's important because you don't know what you don't know - especially about how your market will react to the new service or product you're introducing. Why would you want to spend a lot of time and money building something no one wants? That's the central idea behind the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept. I define an MVP as the rawest, barest, most simple thing you can introduce to your audience, without damaging your brand or limiting future options.
It is far better to decide what you're going to offer relatively quickly, get it out, and then iterate based on what the market tells you. You may have thought the market wanted it smaller, when they really wanted it bigger. Or you felt strongly your service needed to be available 24 x 7, but you learn after going live that's just not the case. In sum, quickly define, but let the market refine.
In my next essay, I'll review how to organize yourself and your idea into an executable plan.
THE LEAN CANVAS AND THE LEAN BUSINESS PLAN
I have been around long enough where I've seen a lot of roadmaps and methodologies and theories and philosophies. But I'm not sure I've seen any make more sense and prove to be so spot-on as the interconnected concepts of the MVP, The Lean Canvas, and The Lean Business Plan. For me, it's because they dovetail nicely with my bedrock belief which I emphasized in my last essay, that being that nothing happens until somebody sells something.
Many, including investors, now share that belief, and therefore the days of needing to craft a voluminous tome of a business plan are mostly over. You need to present a coherent idea, a plan for executing, and some numbers. The Lean Canvas is a way to organize this information, and The Lean Business Plan provides a more formal structure for its presentation.
None of this is new or original thinking by me. Much of what follows is from Ash Maurya's essential book "Running Lean", a veritable bible on the subject. And the Lean Canvas he himself uses was originally published as "The Business Model Canvas." And an associated company called LEANSTACK flies the flag today, although there are many versions and flavors out there.
With that out of the way, here are the main components of The Lean Canvas as I've practiced them.
I. Customer Problem
What are the top 3 problems your product/service address?
II. Customer Segments
Define your target market
III. Unique Value Proposition
Single, clear, compelling message that states why you are different and what you are offering is worth buying
What are the top 3 features of your product/service?
What are the paths to your Customer Segments?
VI. Revenue Streams
VII. Cost Structure
Customer Acquisition Cost
VIII. Key Metrics
What critical activities/outcomes will you measure?
At this point, if you're not raising money to start your business, fully completing The Lean Canvas as your "business plan" may be enough. As I emphasize, better to put your MVP on the market and start selling and iterating. But you'll need more if you're going to visit a banker or a venture capitalist.
Blow-by-blow details on how to create a business plan is beyond the scope of these essays. Instead, I will present a typical outline for a Lean Business Plan. You will see it builds upon the work done creating The Lean Canvas, and in many cases, simply adds narrative and evidence.
VALUE PROPOSITION AND MARKET ANALYSIS
Business Concept: What is the business idea? (this is also your 10 second "elevator pitch")
Customer Segments: Who will buy your product?
Buyer Persona: Define your perfect user (it may or may not be the same as your customer)
Problem/Value: Define the problem your business solves or the value the customer gets from utilizing your product or service
Solution: Outline the possible solution, i.e. your idea
Unique Value Proposition: Directly from The Lean Canvas; this needs to be a part of your brand
Unfair Advantage: Something your business has that cannot be readily bought or copied
Existing Alternatives: How is the customer's problem already being solved by others?
Market Analysis: How big is your market? Provide the research source behind your numbers
Key Steps for Start-up: What must get done before you can launch your MVP?
Key Metrics: As above - what critical activities/outcomes will you measure?
Price: What is the price of your product/service?
Marketing/Sales Plan: What will you do to attract customers?
Build Plan: If you must build a product or a service before launch, outline the steps
Risk Analysis: Identify the critical risks to success, and outline how they'll be managed
What you present here will vary widely, depending upon several factors. At a minimum, you'll want to have some detailed numbers regarding the costs entailed with getting to market, and then profit/loss projections for a year or more. While no business plan, lean or otherwise, is complete without financial projections, remember that they are educated guesses, no more, no less. Do your homework, but don't play company when it comes to building elaborate financial models, which may or may not reflect reality as you move forward.
At this point, you have what you need to create a plan and then perhaps raise some money. As you embark on starting a business, keep the following in mind: you're going to need a lot of luck to be successful. And luck is the intersection of opportunity and preparation. The Lean Canvas and The Lean Business Plan are the latter, and you must now find the former.
THE ENTREPRENEUR'S TALE
A long-forgotten management consulting company delivered on my and my wife Julie's dream, that being an all-expenses paid relocation to SF, from Houston, in May 1992. I returned the favor by dumping them when Scott Edwards came calling soon thereafter, asking me to be the tech lead in a new business, based on advanced fax technology (it's pre-Internet, folks). This company was called Epigraphx and Scott and I started it from scratch in the summer of 1992. His then-wife, Karen, was also deeply involved in the business.
The details are mostly boring, but while the company succeeded, I didn't, at least in terms of being a human being and civilized in the data center I had built. That's me in the picture above (with my now-departed mother, Jeanne) in the data center. The >= 80 hour work weeks for 2 + years building and supporting the engine room of Epigraphx did the trick: my typical reaction to pretty much anything was either a snarl, a growl, or a scream. Often, it was all 3.
In an effort for more professionalism (and probably also to save me from myself), over time Scott and the investors in Epigraphx justifiably brought in not 1 but 2 different CIO's above me. Upon the arrival of the second, I quit. I had built the company with my own two hands, and I'll show them, I very maturely thought at the time.
I had a few percentage points of equity in the company, and Scott and the other investors bought me out at $50,000 or $60,000. Whatever the number, it was fair, despite some real animosity on my part at the time. This all occurred in 1995.
Now, fast forward - way, way forward - to 2014. What transpired on all fronts in my own life and that of Karen and Scott over the 20 intervening years was . . . breathtaking. It was out of nowhere at this time that I got a call from Scott. He's coming to SF, and wants me to book a table for us at the best restaurant in town.
While I had focused on other parts of the Edwards' story during the years that passed, I did know that Epigraphx had been acquired by a company called Silverpop in 2002, and I also knew Silverpop had just been bought by IBM. Pretty cool, I thought (then and now) - a company I started ended up being purchased by IBM, however circuitous the route and distant my touch.
But let's be clear, it was still with some trepidation that I went to dinner that night with Scott. As usual, though, his charm won me over and before long, it was like old times, with hoots and hollers as we dug into what I rated at the time as at least a 1 Michelin Star meal.
At some point during the dinner, Scott told me why we were there. He confirmed that IBM had purchased Silverpop. But then he dropped the big news: it was this last acquisition of Silverpop that finally gave he and Karen the semi-windfall they hadn't gotten to date as founders of Epigraphx.
Scott didn't share the size of their liquidity event, and I didn't ask. And it didn't matter, because what happened next is An Entrepreneur's Tale. It's what can happen if you put it all out there, like you must if you're an entrepreneur.
Scott told me that he and Karen had agreed they wanted to give me something, in recognition of my contributions at Epigraphx. They felt I deserved a part of what they had just gotten after the sale of Silverpop to IBM. But I had been paid fully and fairly for my equity when I quit in 1995. What did they want to give me now, 20 years later, in 2014?
Scott took out an envelope, and in it, a check and a lot of one hundred dollar bills. It turned out the check and the hundreds were similar: each totaled $17,500. Karen had given me a check for seventeen thousand five hundred dollars, and Scott gave me the same amount in cash. They gave me $35,000 and had no obligation to do so. As a thank you for something that happened 20 years prior.
So while I have no massive liquidity events, I do have that story - and that's more than enough for me.
EPILOGUE: WHAT I SAW
That's me installing a speaker in a client's ceiling while I owned Casa Integration. Here is a description of each entrepreneurial business in which I've been a part, the years I was there, and my major takeaways from each.
Sportnet, 1985 - 1987
This is where it began for me as an entrepreneur. While I did not start Sportnet, it was definitely an entrepreneurial endeavor for the principals involved, and regardless, I became instrumental enough over time that it was I who turned off the lights and closed the door with the founder when the money ran out.
Sportnet was a membership organization that offered its members access and discounts to a vetted network of adventure vacation providers. It seems today to be a reasonable idea, but it was a massive, huge flop at the time. From its founding as a class project in the business school at Pepperdine University in 1984 through its shuttering in 1987, at least $4 million - over $10 million in 2021 dollars - was flushed. I guess that's a pittance in today's overly-liquid world, but it was a lot then and to this entrepreneur, still is today.
What I saw:
Hubris and the importance of the minimum viable product (MVP): the lead investor as well as the founder could simply not imagine the idea not working and spent millions before ever even testing the market. They spent seven figures Playing Company, hiring a fancy ad agency to design and produce several hundred thousand direct mail fliers, designed to introduce and sell the concept, as well as an equal number of a stunning companion catalog of the destinations. From those expenditures, I believe we obtained 5 clients, each paying the annual membership fee of $35.
Raising too much money: in a related error, the founder took some of the millions invested and built out lavish office space with the assumption that this thing was going to go over big; but it didn't. It was a humiliating time in the company's history when that space - purpose-built for Sportnet - had to be subdivided and subleased.
Hiring matters: thankfully it didn't work, because the founder was so impressed by the hours I was putting in, he named me "Information Systems Manager", a role for which I was completely unqualified at the time.
Being a first-mover can be risky: ask MySpace.
NTE, 1988 - 1989
"NTE" stood for "Non-Destructive Testing Equipment", the dull name for a woefully misguided start-up. NTE had the North American distribution rights from a Norwegian company for what is called an electronic speckle pattern interferometer (ESPI). About twice the size of a shoebox, it could measure the vibration - in microns - on the surface of an object, using laser light. Precisely knowing and controlling surface deflection was/is critical in the design of things like jet engine turbine blades, loudspeakers, the read/write heads of disc drives, etc. We marketed the product at $100,000 and I am proud to say I made the only sale in the company's mercifully short history, which was from 1987 through 1989.
I again was not a founder per se, but was chosen as the only employee and salesman by the company's founders and investors, two retired Air Force officers, one a major, the other a colonel. Despite them both being obviously accomplished, they were horrible business managers.
What I saw:
Hiring matters: Part 2: I was cheap, eager, smart - but completely wrong for what was needed. They needed a sophisticated engineer that could also sell - that wasn't me, but the founders didn't want to pay what it would have taken to get the right person.
Don't expect a salary as a founder: what really hurt our finances was that one of the founders had no other money or income and was insisting on a salary similar to what he earned as a USAF major. Most actual entrepreneurs know anyone wanting more than sustenance numbers early on is a fake.
Ethics matter: I learned later that it was worse - a lot worse. The major involved was accused by the USAF of a no-no. He was hyping ESPI to the Air Force while still in active service, but after he had secured distribution rights to the product as a private citizen. Clever.
This is the first company I started by myself. A friend at the time was a computer peripheral distributor, and he was convinced the next big thing was to allow people to easily network PC's together. So with his encouragement and with my parents supporting me, I started Metronet.
At the time, the big player in the market was a long-gone company called Novell and their product NetWare. But NetWare was very difficult for non-technicians to install; enter DCA's 10Net peer-to-peer networking solution for connecting MS-DOS PC's, and thus letting them share files and printers easily.
Today, of course, this is all assumed and simple. But that was definitely not the case in 1989 (the only year of Metronet's existence), and I had to build a market from scratch, with essentially no guidance. It didn't last long - I fell in love with my to-be wife and felt it not best to enter an engagement as a starving entrepreneur - but it was still a useful experience.
What I saw:
Cold calling is very difficult: for the better part of 6 months, I would call IT managers of various companies, school systems and hospitals out of the blue and ask for a meeting - that was not fun; it did work, however. I vividly remember reading that famous Tom Hopkins book on selling to try to stay motivated; that worked, too.
You can educate yourself on a complex topic: I spent a lot of time digesting PC Week and the other industry rags of the time, as I (and most nearly everyone else) knew very little about the subject of connecting PC's together. Today, it's even easier, for obvious reasons.
Relationships matter: my jump to hyperspace happened next. Wanting a traditional job with its attendant paycheck going into a marriage, I reached out to a close personal friend, who directly got me a position as a network consultant within Ernst & Young. I was 26.
Epigraphx, 1992 - 1995
Everyone involved laughs about it now, but my experience as a co-founder of this privately-funded venture was excruciating and almost ruined my life. From the day I co-founded Epigraphx in a San Mateo living room in 1992 until I quit in disgust and exhaustion in late 1995, I had never worked as hard or had as many frustrations fighting with technology.
Epigraphx was a pioneer in the now-laughable industry of fax services - fax on demand and fax broadcasting. Hard to imagine now, but this was pre-Internet and were useful technologies for distributing information at scale using phone lines and fax machines. I've described what happened previously in The Entrepreneur's Tale, but here is more of what I saw:
You can only work so much: I learned the very hard way that 2+ years of >=80 hour weeks doesn't work for anyone. I will admit it took me almost 25 more years for that to truly sink in, but it was instrumental in successfully managing people and projects later.
Technology has its limits: my co-founder and our investors became extremely enamored with a particular aspect of the services we offered - except the technology for it didn't work, but they would never accept that fact. It nearly sunk the business, as we had to manually deal with what the technology couldn't (for the record, the technology was optical character recognition - which was in its infancy in 1995).
Getting too close to someone at work is risky: I nearly blew my marriage in a consensual infatuation I had with a female colleague with whom I was working intensely.
Don't miss the obvious: Epigraphx had a data center, a huge (for the time) telecommunications infrastructure, and a lot of servers. We could have been an early Internet Service Provider, or a web hosting company - but we were too focused on fax and blind to all of the opportunities enabled by the dawn of the Internet age.
Majestic Consulting Group, 1995
This was a short-lived IT consulting firm. But it is important because it brought me together with a partner I'd have in the next business, too - and that one took me to Asia and Europe extensively as a consultant.
What I saw:
Good karma and positive energy matter: when I departed Epigraphx, and as told in The Entrepreneur's Tale, I had received a cash buyout for the 3% of the company I owned. That gave me some breathing room, and thus I was in a great frame of mind when I volunteered over coffee with a friend to help her at her company, Wells Fargo Bank. My friend needed some database work done, and that is literally how I came into being an owner of an IT consulting firm. But I vividly remember being at peace with myself and not even trying to find this opportunity.
Partners matter: I was off to the races, but we had one problem. There were 3 partners, and one just wasn't getting it done, and in fact, was stopping us from attracting a 4th partner, one that had, as you'll see, unique access to the CIO of a General Electric subsidiary.
WestConnect Technologies, 1996 - 1999
Of any of the several dynamic periods of my professional career, this was where I made the biggest jump, personally, professionally, and financially. We dumped the ill-fitting Majestic Consulting Group partner, likewise, the name. At the eager encouragement of my remaining partner, we were now able to bring onboard a skilled 3rd partner. He'd been working with her for a few months and was very impressed. The 3 of us became equal partners in WestConnect; over time, we came to employ 20 employees.
What was new to me was the access we had to a variety of big, enterprise-grade projects. How did we have that access?
There's no delicate way to put this: my business partner was having an affair with the CIO of a division of General Electric. That allowed us to be the firm chosen to write their 1997 IT Strategic Plan, which led to us getting some amazing international projects that we had spelled out in the plan. It didn't last - when I returned triumphantly from London, the disfunction in the relationship among the 3 partners was obvious. Among that and other reasons, I executed our buy-sell agreement and left.
What I saw:
Partners matter, Part 2: when we had our initial discussions with our to-be female partner, I point-blank asked her if she was having an affair with our client, as had been whispered by some. She was offended and lied when she said "no". Partnerships are similar to a marriage in several ways, paramount among them the requirement for trust and respect among those involved. We lost that as a group, and not just because of the affair by a partner with a client. Be sure to have a buy-sell agreement in place with any form of partnership.
International business travel is fun and rewarding: there may not be a better perk professionally. I negotiated having our client pay for me to live in London to direct a large international program from there in 1998, and it was easily one of the highlights of my career.
Relationships matter, part 2: I was successful during this time because I came to understand even more that the quality and depth of your professional relationships matter, and matter a lot. The success I experienced directing the program from London is fully attributable to the effort I made in winning over my British colleagues; many of those relationships remain in place today.
You can get what you want: this is where I came to believe in The Mind Set, and the ability to obtain your dreams. When I was flying repeatedly in first-class nonstop between SFO and London, and living in South Kensington, my fantasies had become reality. You must dream it before you can live it.
The power of Program Management: up until this time, I had always considered myself a project manager. I had never heard the term program manager, but during this time, I came to understand that I was providing program management services to our clients. I define the term "program" as a set of related projects selected to accomplish one or more strategic objectives, managed in a unified manner.
Nothing happens until someone sells something: when I triumphantly returned from London, I was tasked to be our lead salesperson. I failed miserably and was not able to land a single meaningful project for our company during 1999. I look back and I can easily see a different outcome if I had sold one or more significant gigs.
Casa Integration 1.0, 2001 - 2017
You can read most of the background of what I call "Casa 1.0" in the first chapter, Born or Learned. It is here where the rest of my realistic dreams came true; indeed, the success I had during this time allowed me to mostly retire at age 56.
What I saw:
Being naïve can be good: you don't know what you don't know, and you might not have the fortitude if you did. That was absolutely the case for me here. I would never have had the courage to push the proverbial rock up the hill if I had known how truly steep that hill was going to be. But make no mistake: without external assistance, not knowing what you don't know is one of the hardest things about starting a business in an unproven market.
Guerilla marketing and the newsletter: a very long time ago, a close friend recommended to me the indispensable and now-classic book "Guerilla Marketing", by Jay Conrad Levinson. It is that book that motivated to me to try everything to get customers, from direct mail to putting flyers on cars to writing a newsletter and mailing it out monthly. It was the last item, the newsletter (self-produced and printed on glossy brochure paper on my feeble inkjet printer at home) that was the breakthrough. Here's a link to the very first newsletter I ever published.
The 10,000 hour thing is true: to become an expert in something, it takes at least that long. I know from the humiliating experience of being tossed off of jobs for not knowing what I was doing. After about 5 years, I began to be competent.
Jeez, there's nothing wrong with $250,000: I watch with great amusement entrepreneurs hell-bent on raising a ton of money and becoming the next billionaire. I am here to say that making a couple of hundred thousand dollars a year over many years is not a bad thing.
Leaving money on the table is smart: my approach of applying professional consulting and project management techniques in my industry eventually worked. In fact, it seemed to attract among the most successful and wealthy people in America. I learned quickly just how critical building trust was with this audience. Most of my competitors saw dollar signs in their clients' eyes - "oh you have to have such and such in a place like this" - forgetting about understanding what the customer wanted or needed. Here was a market used to having every last penny extracted from their wallet by service providers. I did the opposite and it worked to the point I essentially could stop marketing - apart from the newsletter - and rely upon existing customers and referrals only by about 2007.
To hire or not to hire, that is the question: I made a very conscious decision to go it essentially alone with Casa Integration. I had an assistant that I engaged as an independent contractor, and that was it. That's because after years of managing large teams and dealing with the inherent frustrations, I wanted it simple and organic. It was the right decision for me and my business - but it may not be for you and yours.
Know when to say when: by 2016, after an amazing run, I could do a lot of my projects on auto-pilot and was getting bored. I had also grown very weary of fighting with the technology I was implementing into homes and had honestly stopped believing. I was done and I knew it. Here is the very last newsletter I ever published, explaining to my clients why I was shuttering my business.
Casa Integration 2.0, 2017
I had one last trick up my sleeve, or so I thought. As I outlined in that last newsletter, I had the idea of creating a recommendation engine, with the inputs being the technology a person wants in a new home, and the outputs being the products and cabling required. The idea was to simplify the technology, and outright eliminate the need for the role I performed in the 1.0 incarnation.
It didn't work, although I believe even today the core idea has merit, and could serve as the foundation for a company that could "own" home technology in America - with relatively few employees. You can see what my investors and I created here in this video. Here is my vision for a to-be built Casa Integration 3.0, based on what I learned from 2.0's MVP.
What I saw:
Raise enough money: full-stop. I simply didn't raise the money to sustain the business long enough to get any traction. We had a great MVP and had enough money for one major campaign. That wasn't enough for introducing a brand new concept around getting technology into homes.
Don't quit your existing job too soon: I was so personally fed up with the work required for Casa 1.0 that I shut it down (and the quite steady stream of income) ridiculously early, for no reason other than will. And that was that.