The Power of the Gumshoe

My good friend, a bamboo farmer in North Carolina, went on a morning run recently and by the time he got back, he realized he wanted to go to Taiwan. He flew out the next day. Asheville to O’Hare to Shanghai to Taoyuan International in Taipei. A 30 hour commute.

The bamboo industry, I’ve since learned, is booming in Taiwan, where the plant is an environmentally friendly alternative to products made from plastic or other materials. And while there has been much written about how a good run can clear the mind; even make you feel like a brand new person, this post isn’t about a runner’s high. It’s about a traveler’s high. Ironically, a traveler’s high inspired by a few runners.

I recently finished Shoe Dog, a memoir by the founder of NIKE, Phil Knight. He got his start as a member of the track team at the University of Oregon, but really began to mature as an entrepreneur after a trip around the world in 1962. The passion with which he writes about his international travels really stuck with me, moreso than the business lessons one can learn from Nike’s tremendous ascent.

I’ve been curious about world geography since I was a kid. My grandparents were born in Europe, my mother in the U.S., my father in the Middle East. I moved from Israel to the U.S. as a kid. I collect maps. A vivid memory of my childhood was sitting at the kitchen table with my brother and sister waiting for dinner to be served (my favorite was chicken schnitzel) and reading our world capitals placemats. My preferred MS-DOS computer game in the early ’90s was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? We started off each game as “gumshoes” (rookie detectives). The more experience we acquired, the more we advanced up the ladder from our gumshoe status to investigator, detective, or super sleuth.

And Shoe Dog reminded me about the power of the gumshoe. The power of the curious international explorer. One who sets out humbly to acquire new perspective, new knowledge.

Knight visited Asia frequently in Nike’s formative years, and every time he came back from a trip abroad, he brought with him some inspiration, knowledge, self-clarity. For Knight, the progress was both personal and professional.

In comparison with other developed nations, Americans don’t travel abroad that much. Part of it surely has to do with our woeful vacation policies, workaholic culture, and geography/expense.

We’re missing out on the humility of being the gumshoe.

On her first trip to Israel over a decade ago, my then girlfriend (and now wife) landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv after a 12 hour journey and joined the long passport control queue. When it was finally her turn to get her passport stamped, she was “welcomed” to the country by a blunt border agent who told her, “Your last name, ‘Musika,’ is quite beautiful. Your first name, Jennifer, not so much.” Welcome to Israel. Israelis love the hashtag #nofilter. They’re honest. Perhaps rude. But at least sincere. There is no better “welcome to Israel,” than that interaction. You can’t get that cultural context from your Duolingo mobile app.

Every day we are living our autobiography, whether we write it out like Phil Knight did or not. And we can’t fill our pages without curiosity and adventure. We can’t advance from gumshoe status without venturing into the real world and scuffing our sneakers a bit, no matter how uncomfortable it may feel at first.

So, if you’re a manager, encourage your people to embrace their gumshoe status. Regardless of budget, there are always travel deals to be had. Bamboo factories in Taiwan to visit, surfing trips in Nicaragua to take, Shanghai hotels to experience, Moroccan leather handbags to acquire, and border agents in the Middle East to be rebuffed by.

We’ll come back a bit more seasoned, a bit more inspired, and a bit more humble. Gumshoe graduates.

Congrats, You’re Fired

You’re the Chief Revenue Officer and you just hit your sales quota for the month. You’re the CTO and your team just built an extremely fast middle-out compression algorithm. Or you’re the CFO and you just implemented a complex version of Great Plains Accounting Software and rolled it out to your entire finance department, all the while helping your company raise a Series B round.

Congrats, you’re fired.

These were the scenes in London last night: Manchester United’s manager, Louis van Gaal, led his team to their first FA Cup triumph since 2004. And despite the win, within hours it had been leaked reported that Van Gaal was set to be terminated.

I feel for Van Gaal. To rob him of his moment in the sun, for the news to break of his imminent departure within hours of his triumph, certainly seems a bit disrespectful at worst, or unfortunate at best.

The thing is, despite the awkward timing, it’s the correct decision. Yes, Van Gaal led Manchester United to FA Cup glory. The emotion of winning such a massive game, in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium, can surely go a long way in helping a man’s job security, legacy, or both. But the executives at Manchester United weren’t concerned with emotion, they were concerned with data.

Productive people and companies force themselves to make choices most other people are content to ignore. Productivity emerges when people push themselves to think differently. – Charles Duhigg

Van Gaal won a (very important) match, but his results over two years were underwhelming. Keeping him on the job due to the win would have masked Manchester United’s larger issues. So they cut the CTO after he deployed the solid code. Sacked the CFO after he closed the Series B round.

In Van Gaal’s place, they’ll bring in Jose Mourinho, the manager with statistically the best win percentage in Premier League history. They’re choosing data over emotion. Manchester United didn’t let winning mask their problems.

If Van Gaal and Mourinho aren’t your cup of tea, and the other football is your sport – run it back to the New England Patriots in 2001. Starting QB Drew Bledsoe went out injured early in the season. At 29, he was in the prime of his career, he had led the team to a Super Bowl five years prior. Unlike Van Gaal, he was universally loved by Boston sports fans, the media, and his teammates. By the time Bledsoe was healthy again, this unknown kid Tom Brady had come in and led the team to an 11-3 record. Coach Bill Belichick looked at the data and stuck with Brady. He made the choice that most other people would be content to ignore.

The emotion would have said – stick with Bledsoe – it’s “how we’ve always done it,” but the data showed that Brady, despite being newdifferent, and unknown, despite being the uncomfortable choice, was playing better.

Fifteen years and four Super Bowl championships later, it worked out just fine in New England. Data won.

Van Gaal may have been good enough but Mourinho, likely, will be better. Bledsoe was more than serviceable, but Brady had another gear, and took a franchise to another level.

You may be winning – through skill, through luck, through both. But if a difficult or complex change is necessary to take that winning performance to another level, to push out better code with fewer flaws, to make your sales process, and thus hitting your quota even more predictable, to run a tighter financial ship, don’t sit idly by. Make the tough choice and go for the win.

Bring Your Own Team

Avi Bryant, an engineering lead at the technology company Stripe, recently published a blog post titled, “BYOT,” where he encouraged groups of 2 to 5 people to apply to work together at the company. They call it “Bring Your Own Team.”

What an interesting concept. And a dream scenario for those engineers who do manage to successfully navigate the application and interview process and end up together at Stripe.

I’m not sure if Avi or his Stripe colleagues recently read NY Times columnist Charles Duhigg’s new book Smarter Faster Better, but even if they didn’t, they’re on to something here. In it Duhigg tells the fascinating story of a team of data scientists at Google spending nearly half a decade studying what makes teams productive and successful. They found that how a group interacts is more important than who is in the group. That a team of “B” players with high emotional intelligence, who allow each other to speak freely, safely and evenly, can outperform a team of supposed “A” players – superstars on paper.

We’ve all experienced or witnessed this phenomenon. It’s all around us. In England, Leicester’s rise to the top of the Premier League this season – the world’s richest soccer league, is a victory for teamwork. Leicester’s players play for each other – just watch their high tempo, organized style. Each member of the team is accountable, and they’re winning against all odds. 5,000 to 1 odds, to be exact.

Or take a fictional example – like HBO’s tremendous comedy Silicon Valley. Pied Piper’s two engineers, Dinesh and Gilfoyle, need each other. They make each other (and the show) better – if not for their coding collaboration, than at least for the friendly competition they inspire in each other. It’s unorthodox, but it works.

Much has been written about the rise of contingent workers in our new “gigging economy” – economists predict that 40% of America’s workforce will be comprised of freelancers and temps by 2020. And while 2 out of every 5 workers in less than five years may just be freelancers –out for themselves, in teams of “one,” at the end of the day, success in business rarely comes from individual pursuits.

Which is why Stripe’s call for job seekers to apply together as a team has such potential. As Avi describes it, “the industry has always focused on hiring atoms; we’d like to try hiring molecules.” As with any science experiment – Stripe will have to test the hypothesis they’ve constructed and go out and hire these teams of engineers. Some will work out, others may not. There are certainly challenges that will arise and require thinking through related to performance, retention, and advancement of the individuals that make up these teams.

Finding an amazing teammate, or a group of teammates that you work well with, that make you better, that you enjoy being around, is so rare. If you’re lucky enough to have experienced this, you wake up inspired and motivated to succeed.

These are the types of groups that stick together and can change industries and the planet through innovations like PayPal, Tesla, LinkedIn, and SpaceX. The kind of teams that can win the Premier League against all odds because the “how” outweighed the “who.”

On Preparation: Nike’s Greatest PowerPoint Fail

The best basketball player in all the land is not named LeBron James. His name is Stephen Curry. It’s pronounced “STEFF-in,” not “Steven,” or “Steph-on.” If you ever meet the Warriors sharpshooter in person, you could probably stick to “nice to meet you, Steph,” and be just fine…

I thought a lot about Steph this week, not only because one of my colleagues is a diehard Warriors fan who grew up in Berkeley but because another one of my friends told me the almost unbelievable story of how Nike lost Steph to Under Armour:

“The pitch meeting, according to Steph’s father Dell, who was present, kicked off with one Nike official accidentally addressing Stephen as “Steph-on.” “I heard some people pronounce his name wrong before,” says Dell Curry. “I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised that I didn’t get a correction.”

It got worse from there. A PowerPoint slide featured Kevin Durant’s name, presumably left on by accident, presumably residue from repurposed materials. “I stopped paying attention after that,” Dell says.”

If the above passage is in fact true, it surely must go down as one of the greatest PowerPoint failures in business history. And mispronouncing Steph’s name? What a shitty first impression.

Even more surprising is the offender: Nike – one of the world’s greatest brand and content machines. With a world class team of marketers, graphic designers, and communicators, you’d think Nike would have put a process in place to avoid the above embarrassment.

Here’s the thing. Smart people don’t wing it. They double check their work. They use “Find and Replace” in PowerPoint to make sure they remove Kevin Durant and replace it with Steph Curry. They practice their pitch over and over (and over) again. They seek out a second pair of eyes before they hand in their assignment. Those TED Speakers who impress and inspire us with their thoughts on the science of happiness or motivation don’t just take the stage and wing it. They put in the hours. That’s what the greats do.

But preparation and persistence aren’t the only ingredients for greatness. The secret ingredient is actually a strong support system. Surrounding yourself with the right team to provide that feedback and help us improve. Every strong writer has a strong editor.

In software development, we have QA. Imagine deploying code to a production environment without first simulating what may happen in a staging environment?

Non-technical professionals should approach their work in the same way. Don’t just hang out alone on an island with your latest case study, white paper, or pitch deck – waking up super early, skipping the trip to the gym, and rushing to the office to finish your slides and practice your transitions. Rely on your teammates. Bring them into the fold. Walk them through your thoughts and ideas. You may just find a new wrinkle that will catapult your work from “good enough” to excellent. Or you may just find a typo to fix. Either way, you’re ahead.

A Nike executive presenting a PowerPoint to Steph Curry with Kevin Durant’s name on a slide isn’t just a “sloppy mistake,” it’s a credibility hit in my opinion. And I think it’s (almost always) avoidable with a strong team around you.

Not detail oriented by nature? That’s OK – trust in your teammates. Share your work with them. Ask for feedback. That’s the whole point of a team. Steph may be the best basketball player in the world, but he didn’t get there on his own. His Warriors teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have his back.

Before submitting that final presentation, make sure somebody has yours.


If You Don’t Ask, You Don’t Get

One of the nicest guys in venture capital, Jonathon Triest, recently hired a new associate, Blake Robbins. It’s clear from Jonathon’s tweet above that Blake has already hit the ground running.

But let’s flashback about two years… Here’s the backstory to Blake landing his new gig. He reached out to Jonathon while an undergraduate at Michigan State, asking for an internship. He got the internship. Less than two years later, it turned into a full-time job.

For those of you who know my background, you’re thinking this is going to be another “power of experiential education,” sermon. Nope, though it could be. While data suggests that seven out of ten internships turn into a full-time job, Blake is where he is today through hustle. Chutzpah. Relentlessness.

It’s pretty simple, really. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. 

I wrote a blog post in 2014 on leveraging social media to get hired which Blake executed to perfection:

One of the benefits of social media is the access it has afforded those ‘on their way up’ to those with greater experience. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help… You may not receive a response a majority of the time, but when you do, it could lead to career guidance and growth.

Raising your hand is what separates the special ones from the normal ones. Blake may (or may not) be the most talented VC associate in all the land. But he hustled. He asked, he got.

And now, a month into his new role, he’s showing that same hustle and speed on the job as he did landing the job – 30 days later, his firm is already closing on a deal he sourced. Even if hustling doesn’t coarse through your veins like it does through Blake’s, asking is an important skill to practice and implement, specifically if you work in an entrepreneurial or startup role where bandwidth and other resources may be constrained.

Attending a SXSW panel in Austin where you really admire one of the speakers? Don’t just mention their advice on your Twitter account mid-panel to gain a few likes and retweets, queue up in a physical line at the end of their speech and introduce yourself. Authentically. Articulately. Humbly. Lunch at the food trucks can wait. Make that connection. Say hi, shake a hand. Offer something valuable. Get inspired further.

I’ve seen dozens of aspiring entrepreneurs who connected with legendary VC Fred Wilson through the comments section of his blog. They were authentic. They were articulate. They communicated well. They, like Blake, evidently had the talent.

Think outside the box, like Blake did. LA’s top VC, Mark Suster, recently responded to several entrepreneurs from Israel, Ghana, South Africa, and New Zealand on Snapchat. [Sidenote: It’s a blue ocean for Suster on Snapchat at the moment, there aren’t any other VCs that I am aware of that have the same love affair he does with the platform, and thus provide the same access that he has.]

And it’s not just the power of networking. We can ask more frequently in our personal lives as well. In line for an expensive root canal with your oral surgeon but don’t have great dental insurance? Ask for a discount – (almost) everything in life is negotiable. You just have to ask.

Of course, you will get turned down pretty frequently. Suster and Wilson are busy guys after all, and your oral surgeon has a family to feed. But what will surprise you is that your hit rate will be better than nil – which is what it would have been if you never asked at all.

The thing I love about entrepreneurship is that there is no shame in saying, “well that didn’t work out, let’s try something else.” The same is true when it comes to the ask.