Startup Education

Note: Today is my birthday.  I would love for you say happy birthday in the comments 🙂

Inspired by my colleague Brian Bailey’s post about a startup education, I started reflecting on what I’ve learned at WP Engine in the last 6 months. WP Engine has been a departure from the last company that I worked at. It was a small consulting firm that specialized in requirements gathering for F500 companies.  After reading Brian’s post, started thinking about all the things I’ve gotten to learn at WP Engine that I never would have learned at the firm.

WP Engine, as a startup has been an incredible place to get a professional education in how to get things done. Today, I had a lesson smack me in the face with the reality that I didn’t know the answer to the problem at hand. The way that WP Engine has organized itself is dramatically different than the consulting firm. This structural difference is neither good nor bad, only essential to what must be achieved for success.

WP Engine finds success working its way from startup into business. The consulting firm makes progress by billing hours. The equation for each is dramatically and structurally different. When I arrived at WP Engine, there was a bit of intent chaos. As in, from the outside, it might appear chaotic. It happened in weird hours, long hours, short hours, but there was intent driving it forward through some crazy hours towards profitability.

On second glance, the chaos was throwing off features that are (hopefully) re-defining WordPress hosting. You’d have to ask some of our customers about how they like those features. They’re the real experts about our results. The point is, what looked like chaos is creation that hadn’t finished organizing itself yet.

On the other side of the equation is a consulting company organizing itself within a very specific set of requirements, including a number of hours, and making sure that any sign of chaos would fit nicely into an Excel spreadsheet. It was finely-tuned, and extraordinarily organized. And it was quite successful, made good money, and provided a service that large technology enterprises needed.

I’m going to admit that the work never inspired me, though. I couldn’t put any spark into my working the requisite number of hours every week. Structurally, all they asked from me was a certain number of hours. They didn’t ask me for anything of myself, though. That was what I hoped to give.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the work takes all shapes and sizes. It’s diverse, and defies too much structure too early. Don’t put the work into a specific set of hours during the day because too much structure will make the creation disappear.

The structural differences in how the companies make money can be boiled down to a key element that defines everything else in the startup, and determines how everyone prioritizes time and action. This is my favorite part.

Work is measured in the results, not in the hours.

Last year, I got an email from one of my 3 or 4 bosses at the F500 consulting firm where I worked on contracts for Dell, AMD, and HEB. The email admonished me for how I was filling out my time sheets. We were expected to keep track of a certain number hours of work every week. This really meant tracking an additional 2-5 hours over the minimum in order to keep up appearances.

“There is always infinite work to do and not enough hours to do it all. We need to make sure we spend our time doing the work that matters.”

While I was there, meeting the minimum hours was challenging for us as a company, particularly the junior members, because sales were slow, and the limited projects had a certain burn rate at which we could bill them each week. This meant that billable hours were scarce but the hourly minimum was inflexible and didn’t match the scarcity. We didn’t have enough work to go around, but we were still expected to bill a number of hours of “work” every week. I spent time reviewing old documentation and editing for grammar in order to make my weekly nut.

Rather than ask the qualitative question, “What have we accomplished this week?” the company wanted to ask quantitatively, “How much of your life did you spend in front of your computer this week?”

“How many words did you write?” 

“Did you write enough lines of code this week, according to ‘the guidelines?'” 

“Did you spend at least 25 hours in Microsoft Visio this week?”

The answer to all those questions should be: 

“Here are the fruits of our labor. The results have moved our company forward.”

Many of you are consultants and would make the very valid point that many projects are billed by the hour, and that consultant time is valued at so many dollars, and that consultants should be compensated accordingly.

My point is that the success of the business, as measured by its employees should not be:

“Did everyone spend an arbitrary amount of time working this week?” 

That removes free will, and is a painful way to live. Someone else has told you how you’ll prioritize your life and your time. As consultants, you know that the projects just have to get done. Sometimes, that takes less time than allotted. Other times, it takes more.

The creation of something new requires that which you have to give.

There is a trade that you make as an entrepreneur: you trade working longer hours for the autonomy to work on your own terms (more or less). I think that choice is critical to my personal happiness. It means that I measure my own success and failure, and that I take responsibility for making sure I am successful in my projects.

One of the very first things Jason Cohen told me when I was started my interview process* was this:

“There is always infinite work to do and not enough hours to do it all. We need to make sure we spend our time doing the work that matters.” 

At that point, there were 10 employees, and everyone had enough work to fill 24 hours many times over. We had to get better about asking questions about what it means to be productive. If there is a limited number of hours in the day, and since as humans we need to rest and do things like spend time with our families and / or unwind, the real question is:

“How do you prioritize your time to maximize your impact on your startup’s growth?”

You’re going to work way more than 50-60 hours a week, but the stakes are high, so it’s crucial that everyone in the startup learn how to prioritize their time.

An amazing thing will happen when you’re doing work that grows the startup. You’ll grow too.

A year at a startup will teach you more about work than 4 years of college. And they’ll pay you for your time, too.

I’ll trade more time working for more autonomy. What would you trade?

I hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

*I never really interviewed, I sort of made them hire me by becoming a contractor and then writing a job description

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