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Flappy Bird’s Creator Should Be Admired

Let me start off strong.

I really admire the creator of Flappy Bird, Dong Nguyen, for pulling his Gangnam Style level of popular game out of mobile app stores.

I admire him not because I think it’s masterful marketing. I don’t think the dude is pulling a “McRib Sandwich” and is going to re-release his game sporadically to drive up demand.

Rather, I think the self-styled “indie game developer” is genuinely troubled by the attention he’s gotten from the app, and doesn’t want the burden that comes along with his sudden internet fame. Yes, burden. He’s turning the game off because the money and all the attention he got was affecting his life in a way he was unwilling to accept.

Look at the number of re-tweets and favorites. When I wrote this post, re-tweets were over 8,000, and favs were over 4,000. That’s absurd engagement most marketers would kill for. What in the wide world of tech startups would drive someone to walk away from that?

I think the answer is integrity. I think Dong is serious about living a simple life as an indie game developer, and he’s unwilling to sell out his life to get internet famous.

As an aside, that’s not to say that the folks starting tech companies are out of integrity. Far from it. Most of the founders I have the opportunity to know and connect with are some of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, and I look up to them.

I’m just saying that it doesn’t look like Dong ever aspired to that life, and now that it is being offered him, he’s turning it down.

It would probably be pretty easy for someone like Dong to get caught up in the insta-fame of a smash hit game that he’d created.

Take the money, and adjust your lifestyle accordingly. Try and make your next game as much of a moonshot.

Lose sight of why you got into this whole line of work in the first place as you try and maintain the same level of success.

I admire Dong because I think he represents a narrative that I don’t see much in Silicon Valley: that of the sustainable business. He’s not trying to make a dent in the universe, he’s trying to live a simple life. He’s a master craftsman, and small business owner. He’s living his life through the games he designs.

Dong possesses such a clear sense of who he is and what he wants out of life (a calling, maybe?) that he was willing to walk away from an estimated $50k daily revenue from his wildly successful game.

In a recent conversation with my friend Alex King, he talked about moving from the Bay Area to Denver so that he could build a successful dev agency and get out of the startup pattern he was in: Build something for 1-2 years >> sell it off for cash >> watch those two years of work (two years of your life) get iced inside of a larger organization.

Get paid, but never make a lasting impact.

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems

Dong isn’t just walking away from the money. He’s also happily walking away from thousands of folks tweeting at him when they find themselves suddenly addicted to playing Flappy Bird. Dong was too successful with Flappy Bird, and unwittingly made it addictive. This brought him a lot of attention he didn’t want, and the attention got in the way of game creation.

Rather than turn up the addiction volume (Ahem, Facebook), he pulled the game.

The dude has earned the attention of the entire planet, now addicted to playing Flappy Bird, along with a game that is printing cash, and all he wants is to get back to his simple life. He creates small games that generate enough revenue to keep the lights on. In Vietnam, the cost of living must pale in comparison to what it is for the same folks who live in San Francisco and are eagerly observing and writing blog posts about this enigmatic game developer.

No doubt, there is a subset of founders in the Bay Area are screaming that Dong is a f*cking idiot for turning off a magical spigot that every day rains down $50k to his bank account.

I don’t think he’s an idiot. I think Dong knows what he wants out of life far more than most people. And he’s also giving himself the permission to live his life out on his own terms, particularly when it comes to making big sacrifices to live that life.

Dong knows what he wanted out of life, and was willing to walk away from riches and world-renown because those two things would interfere with that dream.

Here’s hoping we can all find the same clarity Dong has.

Props to you man. Keep living your life.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

The Cynefin Framework for Modeling Business Decisions

Tonight, I discovered the Cynefin Framework for decision-making. I recognized intuitively a lot of the lessons that this model illustrates when it comes to analyzing and orienting to properly make decisions and act in a business, or otherwise complicated environment. Prior to watching the video, I could not have articulated any of that intuitive understanding, which really means I didn’t have anywhere close to a full grasp of that intuition yet. If you can’t articulate something, you don’t understand it well enough. 

What struck me as worth noting about the video is the following. 

The Cynefin Model is a sense-making model, not a categorization model. A categorization model would be the typical 2×2 “up and to the right” model that consultants use, where the framework proceeds the data. The categorization model allows you to easily categorize data and make a decision, but the 2×2 model, for example, might not have been appropriate to perform the analysis required to make the right decision. It was rigid, so it made for quick decision-making, but that doesn’t leave room for creative or innovative ways of thinking that are essential to success in business these days.

A sense-making model, like the Cynefin model, is where the data precede the framework. The framework for action and decisions is then allowed to emerge with the data, not the other way around. The inherent assumption with the Cynefin is that a one-size fits all decision-making model may not be sufficient for all problems. With that in mind, we need a model we can use to orient ourselves to the situation at hand, analyze, and act according to model that emerges from data, not the other way around.

This fits in well with the ideas I’m working on about the importance of Social business, because the challenges of Social are creating new situations and challenging that may confound the old ways that large organizations manage and take action. In order to respond to Social, our organizations require new models for decision-making, and my sense is that the Cynefin Framework recognizes the causal differences between systems of action and decision-making, and gives us a structured method to deal with and communicate about ambiguity in a fast-moving, sometimes chaotic environment.

I think that many people are comfortable with the ambiguity, but it’s helpful to have a reputable model that can withstand the rigors of a fast-moving business.

Watch the short video.

I went off the deep end a bit here. 

I still hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

SXSW Interactive is not a tech conference anymore

sxsw is over

Call the morgue.

I just got back from Austin, where I got to check the pulse of SXSW and see how it’s doing. If you want the TL;DR for the next 1300 words, this is it: SXSW Interactive is DOA. Other tech conferences are quietly moving on, and the tech industry is doing the same.

Last year, I was an Austinite, and a local member of the startup community. I commuted in from my apartment to attend, and it was my city that was being invaded by the tech scene’s Spring Breakers. This year, I attended SXSW as a tourist, having moved to SF close to 6 months ago.

This year, I wasn’t one of the locals faking (or not faking) their distaste for the crowds of fewer nerds, but 10 times that many marketing people from San Francisco, and all over the world, to the ordinarily small town of Austin.

As an import, I looked at SXSW with very different eyes than last year. As I walked and Uber Pedi-cabbed around Austin from party to party, event to event, the crowds felt awfully thin. In comparison, once Music kicked off, 6th Street came alive like everyone expects it to. Interactive didn’t generate the same raw energy it had in years past.

There has been a lot of talk that South-By is “over,” and the proof I noticed was compelling. A number of the “influential” folks had opted not to attend. Lots of people were talking about XOXO in Portland being the new “under the radar” influencer conference that the cool people will attend instead. And as I wrote this, I saw Tweets from YxYY popping up in my feed as further evidence that the innovators and creative folks who make SXSW amazing may be abandoning the festival.

I didn’t quite understand how SXSW Interactive could possibly wane until I started thinking about the roots of what SXSW Interactive really must have been like a decade ago. Picture a small nucleus of entrepreneurs and technologists taking refuge in the slower pace of Austin for a big palaver about the amazing things they were trying to build, to share new ideas, and get drunk together one weekend every year.

Now, picture that not happening. Instead of taking advantage of Austin’s slow pace to draw out the ideas over a weekend of badass panels and intimate parties, large company interests have done their very best to turn downtown Austin into the Vegas strip, replete with free booze and meaningless parties sponsored by Coke-a-Cola, Doritos, and Target.

SXSW Interactive from a decade ago didn’t need Vegas Edition anymore than CSI needed a Miami edition. If that is what SXSW has become, the organizers should own that and move to Vegas.

What the hell happened?

SXSW’s heyday would have been before smartphones, when it was still wasn’t cool to know how to spin up your own dev server, and startups hadn’t become so mainstream that Bravo TV, home of America’s Next Top Model, decided to try a startup reality show.

The conference has gotten bloated. Attendance will easily exceed 30,000 this year. You can’t make a genuine connection in that crowd. There’s simply too many people to navigate Austin and find the people you’re looking for. It’s totally out of control as a marketing fest.

The masses have taken over the festival, which means the early adopters are moving on to the next event. That’s the way of things. Conference Darwinism.

But really, there’s no shame in the SXSW organizers capitalizing on the profitability of the festival, feeding off of the reputation of innovation that has been spurred there in the past. But the fact that everyone universally agrees that SXSW is a terrible place to launch is telling. And it means that SXSW should probably stop marketing itself the same way it did in 2005.

When Target is partnering with FastCompany to throw a giant party at SXSW, you know that the target market is no longer the startup community.

Yep, there’s tons of money to be made at SXSW, and more power to them for cashing in. It’s an incredibly profitable market to cater to and I don’t fault the organizers for chasing the money. After all, based on what I can see, there are plenty of conferences in plenty of awesome cities for the tech set to migrate their time and attention to.

Of course, the conference organizers love the growth. It means more money. What’s better than selling 3,400 SXSW badges? Selling ten times that many.

Does innovation require small, intimate groups to happen?

The fertile conversations of years past aren’t happening as much. Unless you’re already in the same GroupMe with Robert Scoble and Brian Solis, you’re probably at a party that an agency spent a gazillion bucks planning, but ends up being a glorious spectacle that everyone attended, but nobody remembers.

Finding *the* hot event is a game where people stay buried in their phones, hunting on various apps, hoping to locate the epicenter of “cool” before it vanishes into the night, or behind a velvet rope.

Everyone who attended this year spent a lot of time either trying to catch a good gathering, or waiting in line, and not nearly enough time engaged with the people SXSW is supposed to be about.

For balance, I did meet some amazing people this year, and had a handful of *amazing* conversations. There were a number of small, intimate events that I was really proud to attend. But those intimate interactions were an edge case, not the norm.

In 2005, fewer than 3,400 attended SXSW. With 30,000 plus attendees this year, no wonder it felt so hard to find an intimate gathering. You might as well be hoping people would notice your brand new iPhone app out of 750,000,000 in the App Store.

Maybe influencer conferences like SXSW simply have a shelf life. Clayton Christensen might even have a comment about the edge of innovation and Tech Conferences.

What it comes down to

The people who live on the cutting edge of innovation and new ideas are the men and women who make a conference like SXSW. When a group of those folks gather together and share ideas for a week, everyone comes away talking and blogging about the AWESOME of simply being together. People reveal (launch) their new products, key relationships are formed, and companies get funded precisely because of the influential nature of the attendees and the access they get at an intimate conference.

Of course, when they come back the next year, a few folks who aren’t quite on the cutting edge will join them, and a few years later, Doritos and Target will catch on, and send their agencies, and that transforms what was a pretty badass gathering of folks into a big frat party, which is a lot like what SXSW felt like this year.

There were pockets of greatness where I looked around and found myself surrounded by people I knew from the pages of PandoDaily, VC firms, and various startups all talking in one big extended group. Under the right circumstances, a small group of creative people, famous or not, who hang out together for a weekend will invariably share amazing ideas and come away saying, “Holy shit, that was magical. I can’t wait for next year.”

That was what SXSW was like in its first few years.

I don’t believe that the spirit of innovation at SXSW has disappeared from us. It’s just moved on. I’m guessing that every great conference will have a shelf life before the masses “catch on.” I also don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing. With every declining institution, there is a new opportunity for creative people to create something new. Andrew Warner calls them “the ambitious upstart.”

Find which other conferences they’re going to this year, and you’ll find the same magic that SXSW used to be.

Here’s to finding that magic in 2013.

Hope this Helps.

Austin W. Gunter

Being a Dick on Twitter Will Crater Your Startup: BetaPunch May Have Just Eaten Social Media Cyanide

Danielle Morrill of Referly had a good reason to be upset with BetaPunch today. BetaPunch is a startup that provides user testing for startups. Apparently Danielle used BetaPunch last year for some user testing. It didn’t go so well because BetaTest violated her trust as a potential customer by sharing the data from her beta testing on Twitter without her consent or informing her first.

As a startup, they wanted to get the attention and notoriety that would come from having a Silicon Valley insider, like Danielle, as a customer. BetaPunch is a Baltimore startup – apparently founder Ross Nochumowitz is also a founder of BigBoyzBailBonds. So while this isn’t the founder’s first entrepreneurial endeavor, he may feel a bit isolated from the core of tech startups in Silicon Valley, and wanted to gather as much attention to his product, which admittedly, could provide a valuable resource. Other startups like UserTesting.com provide a similar service for $39 per test.

To make the most of Danielle as a customer, Nochumowitz tweeted the results of Referly’s beta tests (the tweets have since been deleted), perhaps following the example of the over-hyped “growth hackers” and grab as much publicity from the notable customer as possible. But he didn’t ask first.

He tweeted the results of Danielle’s beta tests, which contained raw feedback of an evolving product. You might as well share the first draft of your novel with a publisher. The results aren’t going to be pretty. That’s a violation of user trust, and warrants harsh feedback. If you don’t know how to keep customer data private, do you really know how to run your business?

The value of customer trust far exceeds the value of publicity one customer might bring, much less the monetary value of a customer. I think Nochumowitz got a lot more publicity than he originally intended, but I doubt the PR blitz will help sales much.

At this point, the job of the Social Media person is to jump in, take responsibility, apologize, and work towards a speedy resolution. Publicly asking forgiveness and making grand gestures of supplication are essential.

But Nochumowitz decided his own “death my social media” judgement by whining on twitter that Danielle hadn’t said “thanks” for the awful customer experience she had received.

;

It was only then that Danielle wrote the post.

Then BetaPunch dug the hole deeper.

And still deeper.

;

And then got out the shovel of self-righteousness, lest they never forget that HackerNews never sleeps and burns self-righteous founders at the stake.

Danielle decided to blog her dissatisfaction with BetaPunch’s customer experience, not because Nochumowitz tweeted the results, but because he acted like an entitled brat and demanded thanks for use of the service.

Sorry, Ross. You’re the one that should have been grateful to have an influential user, and bent over backwards to thrill her with your customer experience. If you had busted your ass and made the most of the customer, you would have created a huge opportunity for the hard work building your product to see the public.

If you had busted your ass, Danielle might trust your startup. And she might have written a completely different blog post.

Trust is everything. As a startup, you *must* earn your early customer’s trust one-by-one, and you must maintain it. You have no reputation to fall back on, so you’ll live and die by the trust of a single customer, and you’ve got to have a stockpile of trust and goodwill for when you make a mistake. And as a startup, you’re going to make mistakes, and the only thing that will sustain your customer relationships will be their trust in your company, your product, and your support.

Social Media is one of the fastest ways you can earn their trust. Quick responses, quality support, and cordial, earnest communication will create incredible relationships with your customers. A long string of happy customers on Twitter becomes an asset to your company every time someone researches your startup.

One of the biggest parts of my job every day is just being available on Social Media in case someone has something to say about WP Engine. I’m lucky that the majority of the time, when people have something to say about about our support team or our technology, they usually have something nice to say. But part of my job keeps me ready to respond just in case someone has something not so nice to say about our company.

My job on Social Media is to be there every time a customer has an issue. My job is to apologize for their trouble, listen to them vent, and empathize as long as they need me to while I escalate their issue for a quick and satisfactory resolution.

The job of the Social Media manager is care about our customers. Most of us are lucky because our companies have incredible customers to work with, but responsibility to our customers isn’t contingent on how we feel in any given moment. It’s contingent only on the fact that they’re our customers, and we want to provide the best support possible.

Every company will have a frustrated customer on Twitter or Facebook sometimes. Typically, it’s justified frustration. The level of frustration a customer expresses on Twitter is almost always equal to the size or reputation of the company in question, and compounded by the quality of their trouble with your product. Woe to the poor social media manager if the customer had a bad experience at the hands of a Support Tech.

The silver lining is that most people love an underdog and so startup companies will be forgiven for technical errors if they make up for them with stellar support.

But woe to the startup that publicly bites the hand of a potential customer, much less a highly influential one.

Whether you’re right or you’re wrong, your customer is always right. Make them feel happy they brought their problems to you by apologizing and making amends. They’ll trust you and tell all their friends to come spend money with you.

Whine that they didn’t ever “say thanks” for the free trial of your product that you offered them, and you’ll burn a bridge before anyone else has a chance to walk across it. They’ll tell all their friends about you. Tell them to stay the hell away.

Let’s say you’re the founder of a company. Your job sometimes is to eat some shit. Wash it down, put your big boy pants on, and get back to work. If you let a bit of negativity get to you, giving up will start to look easier than pushing forward. Find a way to be thankful for the opportunity to learn something about your product and something about your own ego. Whatever you do, don’t go AWOL on Social Media.

Social Media is a double-edged sword for your startup.

Social Media makes communicating with your company incredibly easy, so people will communicate more. This is a good thing. It’s an opportunity to develop more relationships with more customers.

Social Media also makes every single piece of company communication public, and everyone can see the things on Facebook and Twitter that are being said on behalf of your company. This is also a good thing. It means that you can build relationship with hundreds and thousands more customers by proxy.

But only if you are polite and prompt every single time you speak with a customer on Social Media.

If you’re a dick, Social Media will bury you. It’s not one customer, it’s one customer, and the reach of their entire following. Danielle Morrill has a large following. Forget a Klout Score. If you can write a blog post and bury a company, you’ve got influence.

By the way, BetaPunch finally said something nice on Twitter about the whole experience.

Too little, too late. There are 96 comments on HackerNews as I push “publish” on this. So much traffic went to Danielle’s blog post that her server crashed. BetaPunch, everybody knows about you now, but nobody is going to trust you with their beta testing.

In the end, BetaPunch may actually have turned out to be a fitting name for the startup. The “Punch” they’re feeling right now is the wind knocked out of them. Never underestimate the power social media can have for a startup company.

Hope this helps.

Austin W. Gunter

I’m Moving from Austin to San Francisco

I’m very curious to hear the reactions to this blog post. I’m about to make a statement about startup communities with my actions.  In 10 days, I’m going to pack up my little roadster and drive 1,800 miles from Austin, Texas to San Francisco, California. That means I’m becoming a Californian. I’ll be joining the marketing office that WP Engine is opening up in San Francisco, and I’ll be putting myself in the heart of the startup scene out there. I’m really excited.

There’s two parts of the story to tell. The first part is how and why WP Engine benefits from me living in San Francisco rather than Austin, as well as how the move will impact my career. The second part is the inevitable comparison between Austin and San Francisco/Bay Area startup communities.

My perspective on the “Austin vs. San Francisco debate” is based on working with 120 startups through Tech Ranch Austin, a local accelerator, before joining WP Engine and being part of Capital Factory.  I’m comfortable stating a public opinion about my first-hand experience building and being part of the Austin Community, and how that relates to San Francisco.

Why I’m Moving

When I started at WP Engine, the thought of moving out to San Francisco hadn’t crossed my mind. I held the party line that Austin, Texas was the only place to start a startup in the world, and that the Bay Area was overrated. And more importantly, I loved being part of WP Engine and the company culture that I wouldn’t have entertained the thought of moving away from the office. The company was important to my growth at the time. We truly do have something special at WP Engine.

However, as the company has grown from adding the 12th employee (me), now to 36 people, WP Engine now requires different things from each of us in order to keep growing. A company needs vastly different things when there are 10 employees than when there are 30. Growing companies require growing employees, and growing founders, and one of my big mantras these days is to ask myself, “how do I continue to stay aware of what the company needs from me, and stay willing to evolve my contribution accordingly?”  I can only imagine what this would be like for Ben Metcalfe and Jason Cohen.

Moving to San Francisco started with conversations that Ben had with me when I was out there in July and August. The thought about what would be possible from San Francisco that wouldn’t be possible from Austin began to take root. After a month or two, Ben let me know that if I wanted to join the office (to be established) in San Francisco, that would be up to me, but that WP Engine would support my choice to move.

I had several conversations with Jason and Ben to make sure that any move I made would be in the best interests of the company. I also worked closely with LA Lassek, our new VP, to plan how my job would evolve as part of the move. T’s crossed and I’s dotted.

I’ve been blown away by the amount of support I received from company leadership. Knowing that my move would benefit the company, meant that it was a real possibility, so I had to consider it.

Austin and San Francisco

The decision to move comes down to career opportunity for me. The work that I do as a marketer growing communities (I hate the title “community manager.” It’s not what I do), and around content means San Francisco (and also New York City) has the cutting-edge ideas and top performers in the world. Austin has infinite potential, but less existing thought leadership in these areas. There are notable exceptions like my good friends Ian Greenleigh at Bazaarvoice, and Jacqueline Hughes who founded Austin Startup Week. There are more great people in Austin that I’ve missed naming, so forgive me for that.

I knew that San Francisco had much more to offer me at this stage of my career, and the move will afford me the opportunity to create something brand new for myself. Professionally as well as personally.

Recently, I wrote that San Francisco is a city that insists on changing your life. Spending any significant amount of time in the Bay Area will have a powerful affect on who you are. There are too many amazing men and women who are building incredible things out there to not be affected. You can feel the city buzzing when you drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, which by itself looks down and challenges you to do something of the same scale. As Richard Florida has explained, cities have their own identities, and I think that part of San Francisco’s identity insists that everyone who lives and works there will be affected by the energy.

Maybe it’s because there is so little space to cram so many people that everything has to be distilled down, and the electrons get to bouncing off of each other faster. I do know that the people who move from San Francisco to Austin are doing it because they don’t want so much going on in their lives. They’re coming to Austin because they still have a great startup scene, creative and artistic culture, amazing food, but there is more balance and more space. In Austin, we’re a little more spread out, and a little more relaxed about doing things.

We bootstrap more often than we get VC Funding because it allows us to control the pace and the growth of our startups. We live in a house with a lawn, and spend the weekends on the greenbelt or driving through the Hill Country.

I once had someone who moved to Austin from Manhattan explain that he was tired of the high-pressure work, and he moved to Austin in part so he could, “never get on another plane for the rest of [his] life.”

I’ve never been a big “balance” person, to be honest. I’m intense and focused, and when I make up my mind to do things, I do them to the hilt. When I was a Pick-Up Artist in college, I spent 18 months *really* being a Pick-Up Artist. The summer that I was a vegan, I wasn’t just a vegan, I was a raw foodist. When I wanted to learn Spanish, I didn’t buy the Rosetta Stone software, I lived in Latin America. Twice.

I’m moving to San Francisco because I’m ready to turn the volume up and be immersed in the world of startups. I’m moving to San Francisco because of the fact that it is going to change me. There’s an author in Austin who says that in contrast to San Francisco’s mantra of intensity, Austin’s mantra is to “Be Yourself.” I think that’s absolutely spot-on. You can come to Austin and combine all the ingredients of what makes a good life to you, including startups, but also including a lot of other things. Austin is good at a lot of things, but it’s best at offering you the cultural freedom to “bootstrap your own identity.” You can move here and spend your time and energies putting together your version of the Good Life.

You move to San Francisco because it’s time to pour rocket fuel on your dreams and go big or go home. A mentor of mine from Tech Ranch, Jonas Lamis, moved with his startup, Rally.org, to San Francisco 2 years ago because they wanted access to that network, and this year they raised an incredible round of funding from investors that we all admire.

When Jonas moved, he told me that “San Francisco is the place to be for Rally.” At the time, I didn’t understand what he was referring to. But it was the right decision for them. Just look at their growth.

I want more than anything the opportunity to grow. That’s my core motivation. Give me an opportunity to grow, to learn, to contribute to something that matters, and then let me take some risks. I’ll make up my mind and make something happen.

For this stage of my life, San Francisco represents the next personal growth opportunity for me. And yes, that means having to leave Austin behind in some ways. “Austin from Austin” will no longer be such, and even though I’ll be back and forth to the WP Engine offices inside the Capital Factory (which is the most amazing “office” I’ve ever experienced), I’ll still be a new resident of San Francisco. As the American Archetype goes, I’m “going West to find my fortune.”

And in many ways, it feels like coming home.

I was born in a small hospital on the border between Nevada and California, and I lived in the mountains until I was 10. California always called to me, and I dreamed of living there. My whole family is from Texas, and I’ve lived in Austin for 16 years, but I’ve always called the American West my home.

On November 10th or 11th, I’m going to pack my little car and start the 1,800 mile drive to San Francisco.

I’m going to miss Austin more than I can express. In particular, I love everyone in the WP Engine offices, and knowing that I won’t be in the office with them every day hurts. I’m also going miss my friends and my community here.

I can’t wait to get out there and see what happens. It’s going to be an adventure.

A big thank you to everyone who has been part of my journey thus far. That’s a lot of people, and you’re all part of this journey for me.

I’ll be having a farewell party at 7PM on Thursday, November 8th at Easy Tiger. You’re invited to come by so I can give you a hug and say a proper goodbye. Please do stop by.

 

 

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