“For entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs” – the startup world’s motto

December 1, 2011

“For entrepreneurs, by entrepreneurs” is actually the slogan of The Entrepreneurial Exchange, a members organisation in Scotland and London for ambitious, growth orientated entrepreneurs from any sector, but it applies very nicely to the world of high-tech startups where I’m now immersed.

In a nutshell it means entrepreneurs helping and sharing with each other, and as we’re entrepreneurs, doing this ourselves, rather than relying on outside support.

According to the Exchange, only around 5% of privately owned businesses have the entrepreneurial drive and desire to grow and scale up, and it’s those kind of entrepreneurs that see the benefit of, and join up as members of organisations like the Entrepreneurial Exchange, and its international equivalents like EO and YPO. By comparison, in the world of tech startups, probably something like 95% of entrepreneurs are seeking to create something of scale, (and to do it in within just a few years).

The interesting thing to me – and why I feel so at home in the startup world – is that there is a pay-it-forward culture, an ethos that winning is not a zero-sum game, and that we can all learn from each other. It’s baked into the whole community.

(An example: Steve Jobs was mentored by Andy Grove of Intel, and then years later – setting aside some grievances over Android – he returned the favour to Larry Page of Google.)

The Entrepreneurial Exchange’s key objectives are to:

“inform, motivate, educate, inspire and support entrepreneurs to realise their full potential.

That manifests itself in Silicon Valley and in other startup hubs around the world, where there’s thousands of free meetups where you can be motivated and inspired by, as well as meet other entrepreneurs; you can  read hundreds (if not thousands) of quality blogs from entrepreneurs, VCs, lawyers and others where they educate us by sharing their advice and insights, for free; and there’s communities like Hacker Dojo or TechHub where entrepreneurs can work together, support each other and inspire each other.

And ultimately I guess that’s why in this environment there’s no equivalent of The Entrepreneurial Exchange, because we’re doing it by default; it’s baked into the whole startup ecosystem, and that’s why I love this industry.


McNak shows that recruitment can be fun

October 24, 2010

McNakI’ve written in the past about Zappos amazing company culture. But what if your company is much smaller, and your job is to find people to work somewhere else?

McNeill Nakamoto is a Vancouver based recruitment agency who aims to “turn the ordinary everyday experience of recruitment into something highly memorable”. It looks like a great place to work. Having dealt with recruitment agencies in the past and found the experience painful I’d love to see more of this new kind of approach.

Watch this quirky two minute video for an insight into what makes McNak different from the norm:


Book review: Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos

June 1, 2010

Tony HsiehZappos is the online retailer of shoes and clothing that was last year purchased by Amazon for $1.2Bn. They are known for their incredible service and their unique culture.

As a member of the Zappos Insights programme I received an advance copy of their CEO’s new book, aptly named “Delivering Happiness”. I thought as someone who has visited Zappos, met the management team, and read and listened to dozens of articles and presentations I would not have much else to learn; I was wrong.

The initial part of the book focuses on Tony Hsieh‘s childhood and background before Zappos. To understand Zappos you have to understand Tony, and the book certainly gives a greater insight into him as a person. Unlike the stereotype of a what a businessman should be, money is not his prime motivation.

My favourite example comes from when his first business, Internet Link Exchange, was bought by Microsoft for $265M. Tony’s share meant he was due to get $40M, but 20% of that – $8M – relied on staying on for 12 months after the sale. During the few weeks after the sale – sleep walking at Microsoft -  that he realised he would “stop chasing the money, and start chasing the passion” and walked out, and on the $8M golden handcuffs. Why? Simply because the happiest times in his life had never been related to money and he already had more than enough of that.

Another example of new information is the rollercoaster ride of what it was like struggling to grow Zappos. Although it was successful, raising additional venture capital to fund that growth proved impossible after the dot com crash in 2001. Redundancies were made, salaries cut, and Tony personally sold every asset he had, ploughing everything back into Zappos. This was a huge gamble, but underlines the faith and passion he had for this unique business. Looking back it must seem like a distant memory, but it was clearly a difficult time.

The outsider might wonder why all this information, warts and all is shared. The answer is that Tony just wants to help people, when I asked him that question he said, “when you find something really useful and helpful don’t you want to share it with people so they can make use of it too?”

It’s not about content of what they do, it’s more about why they do things that gives Zappos their competitive edge:

“If we want to continue to stay ahead of our competition, we must continually change and keep them guessing. Others can copy our images, our shipping, and the overall look of our website, but they cannot copy our people, our culture, or our service.”

Finally, I found the answer to one of the questions I have been asked most about Zappos, which is what is their policy on using Twitter, which is used by hundreds of their staff. It is very simple: “just be real, and use your best judgement”. That plus the Zappos ten core values keeps everyone aligned.

Delivering Happiness is published on June 7th 2010. For more info visit the Delivering Happiness website.

Meetups are happening all round the world to celebrate the launch so if you want to speak to like-minded Zappos fans, or others who are interested in building amazing company cultures, or want to know more about the path to happiness, then make it happen with other people in your city.

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How to create a community for your website

December 9, 2009

Photo Credit: Adam Tinworth

The answer is… you can’t create a community. You can facilitate it, you can guide it but the community is inside all of us (as individuals).

That’s the message which blogger Chris Pirillo passionately expanded on his keynote address to the Le Web conference in Paris today.

Community is inside all of us.

Community isn’t about a company, but a culture.

Community is becoming increasingly distributed. (For example everyone now has many profiles on multiple websites).

Community requires tools that can’t be built; it’s the people which make a community.

Community is a commodity, but people aren’t.

Community cannot be controlled, only guided. (This is the thing which most companies from the advertising age don’t get. They fret that “people might say bad things about us”. Pirillo argues that’s a GOOD thing; it shows people care).

Community is no longer defined by physical boundaries. (Thanks to the web we now have more things in common with people on the other side of the world than we do our next door neighbours).

Community grows its own leaders.

Community is the antithesis of ego.

Community is everywhere, inside of us.

For more detail on this direct from the source visit Chris Pirillo’s blog.


Culture at Zappos and how everyone benefits

December 8, 2009

Zappos TourI recently spent two days immersed in Zappos at their Las Vegas HQ and this post follows up on my description of Zappos’ world-class customer service. The two day Zappos Insights programme starts with a tour round the office. (This is the same tour that anyone can get for free). On the tour round we met team after team of happy, smiling people. We were greeted by a group of people singing, blowing on whistles or party toys. Everyone has their own, very personalised desk area and there’s all sorts of stuff you wouldn’t expect to see in an office, which makes the whole place feel more like a college dorm room than a place of work. But that’s the point about Zappos, work doesn’t have to be dull!

If you have seen some of the many zany videos available on YouTube you may think that Zappos isn’t serious about anything. They are, it’s just that for obvious reason it’s mainly just the fun and weird stuff that makes it on to the web, it’s more entertaining!

Why the focus on culture?

Tony HsiehBy the time Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh sold his first business to Microsoft in 1998 for $265M he had come to realise something was no longer right with the culture at Link Exchange. Work had ceased to be fun and this he puts down to the type of people they hired, the best for the job but not the best for the atmosphere; many were “assholes”.

Culture and values

Zappos is different, it’s been carefully built over the years by only hiring people with the right cultural fit. Regardless of how much they need staff, if they can’t find the right people with the right attitude, they won’t hire them, no matter how talented that person may be or how badly they need to fill the position. We were given an example from Zappos’ recruitment manager, “right now we would hire 30 software developers if we could find them”. That’s commitment.

These are the ten core values:

1. Deliver WOW Through Service
2. Embrace and Drive Change
3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
5. Pursue Growth and Learning
6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
8. Do More With Less
9. Be Passionate and Determined
10. Be Humble

These were carefully assembled over the course of about a year when Tony Hsieh emailed everyone in the company asking for a list of their personal core values; it was a truly democratic process. Says Tony, “The individual values are not what is important, but alignment of everyone to the core values”.

Why does culture matter?

As the culture evolves in a company such as Zappos amazing things happen, and the business benefits enormously. Here are some striking examples from Zappos of the benefits of the highly aligned culture:

  • Productivity increases by anywhere from 20% to 100%
  • Staff churn is incredibly low; just 6% voluntary churn within the Customer Loyalty Team (call centre)
  • Ideas are generated from the ground up and this innovation keeps the company ahead of its rivals
  • There is a clear framework for delegated decision making which means that the most junior employees, the call centre reps can do things like spend company money on ad-hoc gifts to customers, (which increases customer loyalty), and, by giving people autonomy, job satisfaction vastly increases too

Culture in action

Graffiti wall at ZapposThe job satisfaction, sense of family and loyalty to the company is evident when visiting, whether it’s the graffiti wall where members of staff have written various glowing comments about Zappos or just the genuine friendly way people in the corridors make eye contact, smile and say “hello” when they pass each other.

The outpouring of employee-love for Zappos is documented every year in a the “culture book“. In the book are unedited responses from all staff explaining what the Zappos’ culture means to them. Here’s one I like:

“We all share the quality of wanting to provide service through excellence in anything that we do. It’s that spirit that continues to allow us to grow to what we are today. In this family, we all strive to develop and improve, not just one person but the entire company as a whole. Our culture here is compiled by all of us sharing beliefs, values, goals, attitudes and practices that characterise us as a family”.

For more real-life examples of company’s with extraordinary cultures and the benefits which accrue I recommend books including Good to Great, Built to Last and Tribal Leadership. (Thanks to Zappos you can download a free audio version of Tribal Leadership here; listen to it and then pass it on!).

[Update: my visit to Zappos Insights was covered by Business Week]

I recently spent two days immersed in Zappos at their Las Vegas HQ and this post follows up on my description of their world-class customer service. The two day Zappos Insights programme starts with a tour round the office; this is the same tour that anyone can get for free, just by emailing tours@zappos.com On the tour round we met team after team of happy, smiling people. Sometimes we were greeted by a group of people singing, blowing on whistles or party toys. Everyone has their own, very personalised desk area and there’s all sorts of stuff you wouldn’t expect to see in an office, which makes the whole place feel more like a college dorm room than a place of work. But that’s the point about Zappos, work doesn’t have to be dull! Those of you who may have seen some of the many zany http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUhAEFkbh5I videos available on YouTube may think that Zappos isn’t serious http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CE00IspxzDY about anything. They are, it’s just that for obvious reason it’s mainly just the fun and weird stuff that makes it on to the web, it’s more entertaining! By the time Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh sold his first business to Microsoft in 1998 for $265M he had come to realise something was no longer right with the culture at Link Exchange. Work had ceased to be fun and this he puts down to the type of people they hired, the best for the job but not the best for the atmosphere; many were “assholes”. Culture and values Zappos is different, it’s been carefully built over the years by only hiring people with the right cultural fit. Regardless of how much they need staff, if they can’t find the right people with the right attitude, they won’t hire them, no matter how talented that person may be or how badly they need to fill the position. An example from Zappos’ recruitment manager, “right now we would hire 30 software developers if we could find them”. These are the ten core values: 1. Deliver WOW Through Service 2. Embrace and Drive Change 3. Create Fun and A Little Weirdness 4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded 5. Pursue Growth and Learning 6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication 7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit 8. Do More With Less 9. Be Passionate and Determined 10. Be Humble These were carefully assembled over the course of about a year when Tony Hsieh emailed everyone in the company asking for a list of their personal core values. It was a truly democratic process. Says Tony, “The individual values are not what is important, but alignment of everyone to the core values”. Why this matters As the culture evolves in a company such as Zappos amazing things happen, and the business benefits enormously. Here are some striking examples from Zappos of the benefits of the highly aligned culture: Productivity increases by as much as 20%-100% Staff churn is incredibly low, just 6% voluntary churn within the CLT – Customer Loyalty Team (call centre) Ideas are generated from the ground up and this innovation keeps the company ahead of its rivals There is a clear framework for delegated decision making which means that the most junior employees, the call centre reps can do things like spend company money on ad-hoc gifts to customers, (which increases customer loyalty), and, by giving people autonomy, job satisfaction vastly increases too The job satisfaction, sense of family and loyalty to the company is evident when visiting, whether it’s the graffiti wall where members of staff have written various glowing comments about Zappos or just the genuine friendly way people in the corridors make eye contact, smile and say “hello” when they pass each other. The outpouring of employee-love for Zappos is documented every year in a the “culture book”. (For a copy email ceo@zappos.com with your mailing address). In the book are unedited responses from all staff explaining what the Zappos’ culture means to them. Alexa F explains in her entry: “We all share the quality of wanting to provide service through excellence in anything that we do. It’s that spirit that continues to allow us to grow to what we are today. In this family, we all strive to develop and improve, not just one person but the entire company as a whole. Our culture here is compiled by all of us sharing beliefs, values, goals, attitudes and practices that characterise us as a family”. For more real-life examples I recommend books including Good to Great, Built to Last and Tribal Leadership. (Thanks to Zappos you can download a free audio version of Tribal Leadership here; listen to it and then pass it on!). Photos: Graffiti wall Tony talking

Richard Tait – pursuing passion and creating joy in the workplace

October 21, 2009

Richard TaitI should have been on a plane heading back to Europe yesterday but instead I rearranged my plans and extended my stay here in the San Francisco bay area to listen once again to the truly unique Richard Tait of boomboom. Yes, he really is that good and his story should be broadcast wide to entrepreneurs as you can learn a lot from someone who lives his life with such passion and enthusiasm.

Richard was speaking to a group of University students and started by explaining that “I want to inspire and resonate with just one person in the room, and get the message across to follow your heart”. At this point everyone realised they were not going to get the run-of-the-mill CEO talk. Having seen Richard speak before at The Entrepreneurial Exchange I knew what to expect; what he said resonated with me and showed me how you can operate a business using culture as the bedrock.

An exceptional career

After completing his undergraduate degree and fighting against the system in the UK which turns away MBA candidates without work experience, he enrolled at the Tuck school of business at Dartmouth College. That led to a transformational job with Microsoft, when the company only had around 2000 employees and at a point in time when its mission was crystal clear, putting a PC on every desk. Just four days into being there he was given the opportunity to lead a 100 strong team developing a major new project; Microsoft was a strict meritocracy and willing to take risks with the exceptional talent available to them. Ten years later, during which time he had won the employee of the year award and started numerous successful business within the company came the next major fork in his life when he realised that the culture had changed as the company had grown and he no longer enjoyed working there.

Cranium & culture

Some people are great at pictionary but struggle with scrabble, equally there are plenty of people who excel at scrabble and not at pictionary. This simple truth learnt while playing those 2 games with friends was the genesis for the board game Cranium, a game where everyone would have a chance to shine at whatever their talent is. Or to put it another way, “an entertainment company that celebrates the human spirit”. That very clear vision, coupled with a clearly defined set of core values created an amazing company culture. That in turn happened to create the third largest games company in the World, and it became such a thorn in Hasbro’s side that they eventually bought the company last year. Now Cranium exists as a single game in their enormous portfolio, and the team and the culture that went with it has died. It’s no wonder that Richard explains how it “broke his heart”. Happily though at a recent picnic for employees one year on, the culture and spirit continues and people look back fondly on their times together.

The secret sauce

There is no doubt that Richard has an exceptional business talent and his meteoric career is no doubt down to this and working very hard and making personal sacrifices along the way. However, it’s the style and authenticity in which he has done it all which is what we should learn from, it’s inspiring and exceptional.

His advice for life is to pursue your passion and be joyful; focus on what interests you. (And when you do it’s really not that difficult to communicate).

He is a poetic story-teller and speaks with tremendous conviction and a disarming level of transparency and honesty. Why? Richard is being nothing other than being himself and that makes it easier to achieve business objectives. Much of business is about trust and persuasion, whether it’s convincing a customer to buy from you or an investor to part with their cash.

Richard’s talent is the ability to tell a story and get people to believe, to buy in, and to love it (and him). I was told that after meeting Richard a VC said to his colleague that although he wasn’t sure about the business idea or whether it would work financially they had to invest because of Richard.

Richard’s talent to persuade and transform has been recognised by someone famous for both those qualities as he was recently hired by Howard Schultz, founder and CEO of Starbucks to work on a transformational project. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the title of Howard’s autobiography happens to be…

Pour your heart into it“.

Books as recommended by Richard:


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