In Shoe Dog, Phil Knight tells the story of how he started Nike from nothing to become the biggest sportswear company in the world. It’s a beautifully written memoir packed full of wisdom and life lessons for anyone who wants to make the most of their time on earth. I’ve picked out some of my favourite quotes here.Read More
Why is the world the way it is today? Why does America dominate the international political landscape, and not, say, Tanzania? Why did Christianity become the most popular religion in the world and not Buddhism? For all of human history we have attempted to keep a record of the events of our past, but we are also constantly attempting to explain why things turned out in just the way that they did.
In the 19th Century, Thomas Carlyle proposed a theory claiming, as the quote above suggests, that it is the actions of a handful of 'great men' throughout history who have determined how things ended up. They were born possessing certain traits that allowed them rise above their fellows and become great leaders. This enabled them to become the notable leaders, thinkers and explorers whose lives and decisions have had an enormous and lasting impact on the world that changed the course of history.
On this view, the outcome of the second world war could be explained by the fact that Churchill was an inspiring speech writer, a savvy politician and a brilliant tactician. His wisdom and intelligence allowed him to see further and more clearly than his contemporaries. His sheer force of will enabled him to drive forward the Allied cause and secure victory in Europe. Or so the argument might go.
These days, the Great Man Theory of history is not taken very seriously by professional historians. There is a greater recognition that all men (and women) are the product of the societies and circumstances they were born in to. It may be true that Churchill was a great man, and a great leader, but he was not inherently so. There is no reason to believe that he was born with gifts and talents that made his rise to prominence inevitable.
Plus, history is simply a lot more messy than Carlyle believed. There were hundreds of factors that were all outside of any one person's control, but which are no less important to determining the outcome. For instance developments in technology (e.g. Radar, the Atom Bomb), economic power (e.g. America joining the war) and natural factors (e.g. Russian winters) are all vital parts of the story to explaining what happened.
To say that history is mostly shaped and explained by individual people is to miss huge parts of the puzzle. There is no doubt that great leaders have existed throughout history, but they can only act in the world as they find it and take opportunities as they appear - neither of which are something any one person can control.
The Great Man Theory of Entrepreneurship
It is quite easy to make a similar mistake when it comes thinking about the success of companies. Why is Apple the most valuable company in the world?
If you believed in a 'Great Man Theory of Entrepreneurship', you would believe that it is almost entirely due to the Great Men who were involved - Steve Jobs and so on. On this view, successful companies become successful because they are started by notable individuals who were born with the natural talents and brilliant minds that inevitably bring great success.
They work harder, think more creatively and take more crazy risks than your average joe. They probably flirt with the grey areas of the law, and generally aren't afraid to do whatever it takes to succeed. This is the stereotype of an entrepreneur that many people still take for granted.
Of course, just as in history, the Great Man theory of entrepreneurship is not true.
To be clear, denying the Great Man Theory does not mean claiming that there have been no great historical leaders, or that these people don't deserve credit for the roles they played. Jobs was a great leader and Apple simply would not have become the success it was without him. But he was only one factor among many, and we should be careful not to explain Apple's success simply by pointing at Steve Jobs and saying, "There you have it!"
Consider some of the things that had to be the case in order for Apple to now be the most valuable company in the world:
- Microsoft wins the PC wars and Apple nearly goes bankrupt. Without the competition of desktop computers to focus their attention, Apple and Jobs were free to innovate with the iPhone which is arguably the most influential and profitable product of all time. Microsoft, on the other hand, is barely making an impact in the smartphone market today.
- Steve Jobs was born in the geographical region that would shortly afterwards become the global epicentre of a technology revolution. If Silicon Valley was based in New York, or a suburb of Moscow, does Steve Jobs' Apple become the most valuable company in the world? There is a whole book's worth of factors to explain why San Francisco became the most famous tech hub in the world.
- Around the time that the iPod was first launched, music labels were so terrified of online music piracy that they agreed to massive concessions during the negotiations to have music in the iTunes store.
The world is a complex place, and everyone is born into a certain situation and is given opportunities they can't control. A great leader seizes those opportunities when they can, and works hard to achieve their goals, but it is clearly wrong to believe in a 'Great Man Theory'. He was just one factor in an extremely complex cocktail.
Suppose you intended to start a company that would sell to Amazon for just under $1 Billion. How would you go about starting things off?
In 2007 one man decided to broadcast a live stream of his life over the internet 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This service was called Justin.tv and it was certainly a strange project - even more so considering this was ten years ago and the technology was only just becoming available. Now, there's surely no way he could know that his company would end up selling to Amazon, but if he hadn't got started anyway, Twitch TV would not today be one of the biggest sites on the internet, worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
In fact, Justin.tv itself was not a successful business, and a relative failure as a project. It was not until they launched an off shoot service of Justin.tv which focussed on people broadcasting themselves playing video games that the website caught on in a big way and Twitch.tv was born. In retrospect, the mistakes are obvious and perhaps the founders should have seen them coming. But we should be careful not to give hindsight too much credit, because when you're trying to do something brand new there is no play book or example to follow.
This general story is told over and over in the world of start ups, and what has become clear is that the prize is won by those who get started, not those who wait until they've got the perfect idea. There is a similarity between starting a startup and developing a scientific theory.
Often, the only thing you can know for certain is that you're wrong in some way. It's only once you put something out there that you can decide whether the theory is true.
What does it take to become known as a great theorist / writer / thinker? As the quote above suggests, it's not simply whether you come up with theories that are true - they also have to be interesting. That's not to say that your theories should be untrue, only that truth alone is not enough to make people think of you as one of the greats.
So what is it that makes a theory interesting?
In 1971, the sociologist Murray Davis wrote a paper to try and answer this question. In general terms, he finds that, "A new theory will be noticed only when it denies an old truth, proverb, platitude, maxim, adage, saying, commonplace, etc."
He adds, "All interesting theories, at least all interesting social theories, then, constitute an attack on the taken-for-granted world of their audience. … If it does not challenge but merely confirms one of their taken-for-granted beliefs, [the audience] will respond to it by rejecting its value while affirming its truth."
In other words, an audience finds a theory interesting when it identifies some part of their world view that they have assumed to be true and shows it to be false. If a theory confirms what they already thought to be true, then they will agree it is true, but reject the value of the theory. For example:
- Darwin's theory of evolution is interesting because it takes what looks like a perfectly designed natural world and reveals that it is in fact the result of chaos and survival of the fittest.
- Google's research has revealed that to build a high performing team, the only requirement is that there is psychological safety. This contradicts many people's assumptions that, for example, high performing teams require a team of experts, or a strong leader, etc.
However, you must also be careful not to go too far, or to challenge beliefs that are held too strongly by your audience. As Davis points out, "There is a fine but definite line between asserting the surprising and asserting the shocking, between the interesting and the absurd. An interesting proposition [is] one which denies[s] the weakly held assumptions of its audience. But those who attempt to deny the strong held assumptions of their audience will have their very sanity called into question. They will be accused of being lunatics; if scientists, they will be called 'crackpots'. If the difference between the inspired and the insane is only in the degree of tenacity of the particular audience assumptions they choose to attack, it is perhaps for this reason that genius has always been considered close to madness."
As many awkward dinner conversations have revealed, there is a thin line between interesting challenges to your assumptions and offensive attacks on your deepest held beliefs. Try if you can to stay on the right side of that line.
Another possible challenge for society in general is that we're often in danger of looking only at what's interesting, and not making sure that theories are actually true. Surely everyone has experienced hearing about some idea or explanation for a phenomenon which is really fascinating, only to find out later that it isn't true. For me this was the notion that humans only use 10% of our brains, a frequently repeated, but utterly incorrect claim. Even today it's repeated all over the place, and I think it has stuck around precisely because it really is an interesting idea! When you first hear the claim that we only use 10% of our brains, it's completely surprising because of course we assumed that we used all of our brains.
There must still be thousands of people around the world who believe this claim now, so there's almost no hope of correcting everyone. The claim is interesting enough (and minimally plausible) that it doesn't really matter that it's not true. My concern is that this happens more often than we think.
Interesting Start Ups and Boring Business
I think this general outline applies equally well to start ups. What does it take to be a great start up? It's not enough that it should make money, that goes without saying (or it should do). It also has to be interesting. And an interesting start up is much like an interesting theory or idea.
Sometimes the key to being seen as a great start up is that it challenges an assumption your customers thought was true. The examples of upended assumptions include:
- People will never want to stay in a random strangers house that they found on the internet. (Airbnb)
- Normal people won't offer to drive strangers around in their own cars. (Uber)
- Buying books over the internet will never catch on. (Amazon)
- No one will use a service if you can only use 140 characters. (Twitter).
The list goes on.
If you want to build a startup that generates the near mythical status of Uber / Amazon / Twitter / etc, then you can't just be a good business, you also have to challenge an assumption your audience always thought was true.
Having said all that, I think the same problem can apply to start ups as applies to theories. Sometimes we're at risk of only looking at whether a start up is interesting, and not whether it's true (i.e. makes money, is a good business, etc). Theranos, infamously raised millions of dollars of investment money on the claim that they had invented a way to test blood samples that was insanely more efficient than previously, using a method that was judged by the experts to be impossible. Again, a very interesting start up! So interesting that they didn't really check that it's claims were true.
A lesson for us all that we shouldn't let interesting over shadow what's true.
I recently finished reading "Smarter, Faster, Better" by Charles Duhigg - a great read full of insights about how the most productive individuals and organisations work.
One of the best sections is about what makes a good team and it refers extensively to work done by Google during "Project Aristotle". Google spent several months studying all of their teams to try and determine what the highest performing teams have in common and whether traditionally accepted wisdom held up to scrutiny.
What they found was that it was surprisingly difficult to discover any features of a team that were always correlated with high performance. There were high performing teams that were very extroverted, but also those that were introverted. Some were best friends outside of work, while others never spoke outside of the office. They had hypothesised that teams who are physically located together would outperform teams who are distributed around the world - but even that turned out not to be the case.
The one thing that they found to be a reliable and consistent feature of high performing teams is what they called "psychological safety". The size, location, organisational structure, and every other feature you could think of turned out not to be essential for high performance. Only psychological safety is absolutely essential.
What is psychological safety?
Psychological safety is a "shared belief, held by members of the team, that the group is a safe place for taking risks. "It is a "sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up... It describes a team climate characterised by interpersonal trust and mutual respect in which people are comfortable being themselves.
- Page 50, Smarter, Faster, Better.
A team that does not have psychological safety is one in which members of the team aren't comfortable being themselves and may worry about speaking their mind or taking risks once in a while. On the other hand, teams that do have psychological safety encourage innovative ideas and novel approach to be aired publicly. Of course, a team that has psychological safety is not guaranteed to be high performing, but, according to Google's research, those who don't have it will be very unlikely to reach their full potential.
How does one produce psychological safety within a team?
Again, Google has the answers. There are two behaviours that all good teams share and which contribute to an atmosphere of psychological safety: social sensitivity and equality of conversation turn-taking.
Social sensitivity is a short way of saying that members of great teams tend to be aware of how other people within the group are feeling. As Duhigg puts it, good teams "were skilled at intuiting how members felt based on their tone of voice, how people held themselves, and the expressions on their faces." (pg 60)
The other behaviour that leads to psychological safety is 'equality of conversation turn-taking'. This simply means that "all the members of the good teams spoke in roughly the same proportion... In some teams, for instance, everyone spoke during each task. In other groups, conversation ebbed from assignment to assignment but by the end of the day, everyone had spoken roughly the same amount." (Pg 60)
These two behaviours are perhaps not the two you would think essential for high performance, but once they are pointed out it's not hard to see some logic behind them. A team in which individuals are not socially sensitive are more likely to develop poor relationships over time. It's often said that a huge proportion of our communication is non-verbal i.e. There's more to understanding other people than just understanding the meaning of the words we say.
A team where individuals don't pick up social cues based on tone of voice, body language, etc is one where people will very often misunderstand one another. Best case scenario that means they will make mistakes because they're not all on the same page. Worst case scenario there will be hurt feelings, arguments and a sour mood.
As for speaking in equal amounts, it should also not be very surprising to discover that this how high performing teams operate. Assuming you have hired well in the first place, shouldn't you expect each member to have something valuable to offer when addressing a problem? The more voices that are heard, the more perspectives will be brought to bear and the more likely you are to find an innovative solution to a difficult problem.
What's more, it's almost certainly a universal law that people want a voice and they want to be heard. Giving each member of your team a voice doesn't mean that everyone gets a vote in the final decision, but it does mean that they feel valued, respected and meaningful. If you've ever been a part of a meeting where you can't get a word in you'll know how hopeless it feels. I wouldn't be surprised if that feeling spreads across all areas of your work over time.
The final comment on implementing a culture of psychological safety is that it's important that leaders set the tone and behave as they expect their team to behave.
"To create psychological safety, team leaders needed to model the right behaviours... Leaders should not interrupt team mates during conversations, because that will establish an interrupting norm. They should demonstrate they are listening by summarising what people say after they said it. They should admit what they don't know. They shouldn't end a meeting until all team members have spoken at least once.
... There are two general principles: teams succeed when everyone feels like they can speak up and when members show they are sensitive to how one another feels." (Pg 66)
I'd really recommend getting a copy of Harder, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg. It's got a ton of really interesting stories and insights on motivation, setting goals, building a great team and more.
Putting your entrepreneurial vision into motion will almost certainly involve some coding at some point, whether it's a website or an app. But if you're not as tech savvy as you need to be, how do you make it happen? Learning how to code is possible these days with a wealth of free and affordable online courses (e.g. Codecademy), but not everyone has the time (or the desire) to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of programming. Unless you want to learn those skills for their own sake, you're more likely to get frustrated and eventually give up on the project altogether.
An alternative for most budding entrepreneurs is to get someone else to do the coding for you, but how do you go about it? I recently attended a web development workshop through NEF, led by the nice people at Steer. Here's a quick guide about what I learned on hiring a developer.
Step 1: Decide what you're building
There's no point looking for a developer until you know what you're going to be asking them to do. Are you building an app or a website? What will it do? What will the user journey look like? What features are absolutely essential and what would be nice to have as an extra?
Get as clear as you can with what you're hoping to achieve so that you can be very clear with developers who express an interest in getting on board.
It's also useful at this stage to build a wireframe - a visual representation of what the website or app will look like, where the buttons will be and what they will do. You can do this just using a pen and paper if you want, but there are also several online tools to help. Take a look at: balsamiq.com or gomockingbird.com.
Step 2: Think about cost
The amount you have to spend on developing your site can obviously make a big difference about what the end result is like and how many of the more complex features you have been able to include. On the other hand, if all you need at this point is a more basic product then you shouldn't waste money on hiring someone very over qualified for the task.
At the cheaper end of the scale a junior developer will expect to be paid somewhere in the region of £10-20 per hour and will most likely have between 1-3 years of experience.
A highly skilled individual developer with more than 5 years experience will usually be paid between £30-40. This option would be the best choice if you want to be really sure that the end result will be up to scratch, or if you want something complicated that would require the developer to really know what they're doing.
If time is of the essence or if one person is unlikely to have all the knowledge required to deliver the product then you may have to look at hiring a team of developers. Here things start to get very expensive and can vary wildly, but expect to pay around £100-200 per hour.
Finally, you have the option of hiring an agency that will take the whole project off your hands and do everything from designing to coding to maintaining afterwards. It's very unlikely that you will need to use an agency, particularly if you are trying to build a very first version of your idea. However if you do go this route, you could end up paying about £10,000 per project.
Step 3: Find a developer
Assuming you're not going down the agency route, you next have to actually find someone who might be interested in working on your project. This becomes more difficult if you have no idea at all about what developers do or how websites/apps are built. It would be extremely wise to educate yourself on at least the basics before moving ahead.
This doesn't mean you need to become an expert, but if you don't understand how the technology works, it will be impossible to articulate what you need in a developer! There are a myriad of ways to build a website or an app, but fortunately there are also dozens of resources that will allow you to teach yourself what you need to know. Have a google, speak to any tech-fluent friends you know, and write a list of required skills for your project.
When it comes to finding developers, depending on where you live there may be many different ways. In most major cities there are regular tech meet ups that can be found quite easily, but you should also make the most of your network to get the word out. Post on Facebook and LinkedIn, see if your friends know anybody that might be interested.
Another option would be to post your job on one of the many job boards out there that cater specifically to the developer community e.g. Stack overflow, GitHub or Silicon Milkroundabout.
Step 4: Vetting candidates
Okay, so you've worked out what it is you need done and you've managed to attract interest from a few developers who are keen to work on the next big thing - now you have to look a bit further and decide on who is most suitable.
Before the interview you should ask them to send you some code samples and/or previous projects they have worked on. Have them explain exactly what it is they did and if you're really new to coding you should ask a friend or technical adviser to take a look and ask for their opinion.
The final step is the interview, but it could be as informal as meeting for a coffee so you can get to know each other better. Again, if you have a friend who knows their stuff, see if you can ask them to join you for the interview, or perhaps arrange a phone call between the candidate and your friend so he can ask the right technical questions where relevant.
Aside from that you are looking for three things; do they have a personality that you can get along with?, do they have the time to commit to the project?, and are they actively involved in the coding community?
On the other hand, warning signs to watch out for might be; do they struggle to answer technical questions about their previous projects?, do they have a big ego or a bad attitude? And have they been unwilling or unable to share sample code with you?
Step 5: Success!
Hopefully you will end up with a developer who has the right skills, that fits your budget and who will do a great job for you!
Hopefully the quick guide will give you a starting point. If you have any more advice, leave a comment and let me know!