Pizza, Music & Beer - How To Build a Rockstar Team

Building any new team, takes considerable effort, thought and direction.  Building a core startup team, capable of work far out reaching the number and talent of the people involved,is the holy grail, but not impossible.

  • Create and publicise an end goal - To get the best out of any team requires direction.  That direction comes from identifying an end goal.  What is the team really there for?  Not the small every day tasks and job description values, but what is the underlying value that the team gives above and beyond anything else they have to do to achieve that?  Those goals are generally far reaching and ambitious but still succinct and easy to understand and benchmark.  "It doesn't matter what it takes, but our website must always be up" etc.
  • Identify the path ahead - The path ahead will be rocky.  But it needs identifying for at least the next 6 - 12 months.  The finer points of that journey will (and hopefully should) change.  That's the flexibility of working in a new and generally small team.  The route should include key milestones (either product, personnel or team related) that can be measured.  If you can measure it you can alter your direction to make sure you stay on track.
  • Choose the right tools to help you - This is vital.  Tooling could be as simple as the making sure your hosting provider or IDE are consistent and correct for your team, or identifying the best framework to choose for tasks within a product.  Selecting the correct tools allow you to focus on what your key value-add skills are.  If you're a race car driver you don't want to spend time servicing your car.  Spend time canvassing opinion and making informed decisions.  Involve as many people as possible.  It may take longer, but the end result is more robust and long standing.
Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos

  • Make things repeatable - Standard Agile coding practice is to keep your code DRY (Don't Repeat Yourself) with respect to logic, so this may seem contradictory.  What I'm really referring to is simple tasks and operations in the team that can be relayed to others, new team members or even partners, oursourcers and interfacers to your team.  If a process is repeatable it can be done my more than one team member (reducing risk) and that generally means it can be improved through iteration and pair analysis.
  • Get people with passion - Techies love new stuff.  Many know a lot about a lot of stuff - tools, languages, infrastructures, libraries and so on.  How do you select the best personnel?  Well, ideally that would be through your own personal network.  Knowing people individually, either through direct work relationships or recommendations, is considerably better than the standard interview, show, tell and test method.  Identify people with a passion in something different.  An obscure language.  An unheard of rock band.  A blog on turtles.  The content doesn't matter.  If someone has passion, identify it and use that passion within the team.
  • Document without being bureaucratic - Documentation is often seen as a hindrance.  It's time consuming.  "We'll do it later".  Creating expressive code that is self explanatory, is a good habit from an Agile / XP standpoint.  Use of clear variable and method names for example.  But also, document certain processes.  Backup steps, roll out process, recovery steps, password hooks and so on.  Doesn't need to be War and Peace - a text file on a shared access point, or even a white board note.  Get people to work as if they're training someone else to replace them, picking up simple processes, making them repeatable and documented.
  • Have structure without restriction - Again this is more focused on simplicity rather than complexity.  Basic contact hours for team members.  What IM channels can you expect people to use at what times.  Set a day each week where everyone is in the same place at the same time.  Set a time for a virtual meeting twice a week if people work in different states or cities.  Also important from an organisational perspective, is making people aware of who to go to for certain company or personnel related issues.  A basic structure allows people to understand their role and what is expected from certain people and scenarios.  This allows them to concentrate on what they're good at.
  • Add pizza, music and beer* - Building a successful team isn't just about the product, company or 'results'.  It's about building individual careers and personalities.  Work is the place you spend the majority of your waking hours.  Make it fun.  Make it personal.  Make it real life.  Share interests and order a few chilli-beef pizzas and a carton of beer for Funday Friday's.  It's only a job after all.

*substitute as necessary.

Agile Programming and Agile Selling

In web tech, everyone is keen on Agile development.  If it's not agile (or a variant delivering similar results) most folks aren't interested.  The main themes behind Agile development tend to focus on speed, change, transparency and increased satisfaction.  Themes, in reality, can and perhaps should, be applied to most areas of customer facing business.

Everyone wants something yesterday.  Most people want improvements or changes to existing processes, standards or services.  Most people want to know what's going on  - and that is especially so when things go wrong.  So that means most people want transparency too.

One of the themes regarding agile design is that of feedback.  Good quality end user feedback is like the holy grail.  I don't mean good as in they like your stuff, I mean good as in it's quick, reliable and appropriate and can accelerate the development process with regards to identifying bugs, incorrect features or processes.

Selling should be the same.  A new market or product will not necessarily take the form of existing channels.  Understanding of the customer, their problems, the solution they require and how that should be packaged and communicated are key to any sales execution. 

How agile are you?

How is that done in practice?  Replication of existing practices is generally the normal starting point.  "If it's worked before it will work again..."  A decent thought process.  What is key, is the ability to learn quickly if that process works or fails.  That requires a metric to determine what is classified as successful, as well as a method to be able to collate and collect that metric - the feedback theme again.  How is that possible?  Metrics are all around.  Click through rates, response rates, conversion rates, attendance rates, signup rates, referrals, recommendations, cancellations.  The key is to understanding the numbers that are returned.  What is considered a bad enough result to warrant a change in direction?

Once a decision has been made to stop or alter an approach, it is then key to quickly figure out a new approach, iron out the deficiencies of the original method and run again (iterative development??).  This is just really a positive feedback loop.  The difficulty is, that the customer doesn't know they're being canvassed for their opinion.  They're simply being offered a product or service via a marketing, advertising or sales channel and either converting as a purchaser or ignoring.  As the product owner or seller, it's then key to either try and understand individually why the conversion failed or strategically if a failure occurred across a larger group.

Like in software, you can't create a product/feature in isolation from the people who will use it.  You can create the most beautifully complex piece of code in the world.  If no one uses, needs or likes it, it's not really doing it's purpose.  Conversely you'll often find the most hacked up, short term, sticky plaster of an approach is massively successful, loved and used beyond all expectation.  Both of those circumstances can be normalised if a solid feedback and rescoping process is run.

What's All The Google Plus Fuss?

Unless you've had your netbook / laptop / iPad / iPhone / Android / desktop PC (do they really still exist?) switched off in the last week or so, you would have noticed many people tweeting and blogging about Google's new social networking project.  Google+ (or Google Plus as there isn't a consistency afaik) is the so called death eater of Facebook, the overnight disease of Twitter and for the recently Microsoft acquired Skype who knows?  If the hype is to believed of course.

With features that take arguably take the best out of the most popular of the existing social networking platforms, it's easy to see why the hype and attention that has been placed upon it.  With any product though, there are benefits to be realised from having the first-mover-advantage.  In the case of Google+, you can just argue they've let other players iron out the market before they've come along with a more succinct approach.  If it wasn't for the Wright brothers we wouldn't be enjoying the A380.  Google's argument is they can provide better privacy through 'Circles' and better connectivity through 'Hangouts'.

So for that argument to hold it assumes that Google+ is firstly a competitor of the likes of Facebook / Twitter / Skype (lets say FbTwSk to save my poor fingers from typing) and that their features are at worst comparable and at best an improvement.  The features don't need to be new.  Biggest mistake number 1 of many entrepreneurs trying to enter a market: nothing needs to be new, it's just needs to be better.

Assuming the features are at least on par, will Google+ be able to take over, or at least leverage the same user base, as FbTwSk?  Well it would be unlikely that any new user to Google+ has no social networking presence at all. It's more likely Google+ will be aimed at existing users of socnet sites offering them an improvement on what they already have.  So this must be where the competition angle starts?

The launch of Google+ was done with restricted signup.  Although a pretty old trick, it was nonetheless pretty cute.  This is just the same as making people queue to get into the boutique shop sale.  It creates a funnel effect which creates a false sense of want, amongst those who cannot get in.  By simply restricting access to something, Google instantly made a marque good, reducing supply to increase price via excess demand.

Those who did have access became the minority.  To amplify their minority status what would be the best way to tell others about being in the minority?  You utilise your existing social network.  So instantly Google leverages it's so called 'competitors' to promote it's own product.  Nice.

"Mark Zuckerberg has joined Google+" was a headline I saw tweeted yesterday and he was the user with the largest number of followers.  A lot of people seemed surprised.  He is the probably the biggest name (I don't mean the 14 chars) in social networking so why wouldn't he have an account on a new social networking site?

I guess there's a few ways of looking at that:
  1. He doesn't join every new social networking site.  There's probably several hundred a day starting up.
  2. It increases brand awareness of both Google and FB.  So mutually beneficial / damaging?
  3. By signing up he keeps his enemies close.  Or at least sees their ammunition
  4. Does it encourage existing FB users to sign up too?
  5. Leverages an interdependence between the two products.  How many real estate agent shops / car dealers do you see working right beside other real estate agent shops / car dealers? 
What does it all mean?  Well Facebook relies heavily on advertising.  Advertising works when you have a large pool of people to aim your adverts at.  Facebook has got a few users signed up by now.  Google is first and foremost a search engine, which relies heavily on advertising.  Advertising works when you have a large pool of people to aim your adverts at.  Google has got a few users signed up by now.  Hmm. 

Both doing the same thing, but coming from different angles.  From a purely business related viewpoint, what Google has done is not that surprising.  They've looked at their existing customers and provided them with a value added service based on what's best in the industry.  No different to say BMW adding in a free generic MP3 adapter.  But do we need another social networking outlet?  Time will tell but you can only improve something so far before it needs reinventing.