Both sides of the Table – 2X Employee turned Employer

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As you rush to get to work in the morning, have you sworn that if you owned the company, you’d implement flex hours so that people could show up at work at their most productive times instead of come in and spend the first couple hours drinking coffee and blankly staring at the screen trying to wake up? Yep, I have too, and it seems so obvious!

Have you hoped that you’d be included in strategic discussion, so you can not only have insights into your own near-future but also grow professionally and see “how things are done”? Hey, I have too!

I always had plans to start my own company. Yet, after graduation, with looming bills and debt (which have only gone up with time), I held 2 full time jobs before starting up. I had amazing luck in coming up with a list of things NOT to do because one of my bosses was an exceptionally unlovable person (to put it mildly) – for example; he had a software installed in everyone’s computer to capture screenshots every 5 seconds which he checked religiously to ensure we weren’t wasting our time! Polar opposite, my other bosses (co-owned company) were absolutely spectacular, nurturing, fair, encouraging, supportive and even protective! I can’t say enough good things about them.

Given these confoundingly stark differences, I started off with some fine ideas of what’s good and what’s not:

Things I feel I succeeded at, as an employer:

  • We have health coverage from day 1 (peace of mind is priority)
  • Constant (although meager) supply of snacks and pop,  (programmers are notorious snackers!)
  • All bank holidays are our holidays (yayyy 2-day Easter)
  • Bi-weekly Pay-Day lunches that the office pays for~
  • Open conversation about strategy, money, new clients, what’s keeping us up an night etc. (Sharing a common goal makes us stronger)
  • Related to above – having everyone aligned and motivated (to the point of making sacrifices of LeadSift)
  • Paid downtown parking (because, why not)
  • All the employees make more than all the founders (that’s table stakes)
  • Equality (it’s pretty easy for now though, since our team is pretty small)
  • Wear whatever  you want (I hated dressing up like a consultant)
  • You can choose whatever laptop you want, within a set budget (Ubuntu? Windows? Mac? Windows in a Mac machine? Sure, we have them all)
  • Real flex hours (Mostly because I can’t be productive before 10am)

Things I failed at, as an employer:

  • Promised half-day Fridays but due to work pressure, was unable to keep it up
  • Figure out a way to compensate engineers for their hard work as much as/similar to sales bonuses
  • Not have as many congratulatory or celebratory or seasonal celebrations as I wanted
  • 4pm Beer Fridays – something that was talked about but never implemented
  • Just failing to set expectations in general – growth numbers, commissions, raises etc (because even I don’t know)
  • Keeping sexist/discriminatory/rough remarks at bay
  • Maintaining a clean office when there’s no visitors scheduled to arrive

I DO LOVE my team, all the weirdness inclusive – nay, specially for the weirdness and quirkiness! So, I’d love to know what would you want to see done differently at your work place or mine? What’s most important to you?

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The best thing about hard things

It has been just a couple days since our last board meeting and we were settling back into business as usual. And that’s when it hit me.

I would have never imagined that one of the most compelling, motivating and reassuring days of my life would have been when we were pushed into a corner, almost powerless, close to defeat and left only with a choice between overcoming insurmountable odds or packing up.

If you’re expecting this blog post about some company that came back from dead and turned it around into a billion dollar business, sorry to disappoint you. I am too impatient to wait and see what happens to LeadSift and then write about it when and if we’re successful, also frankly, I don’t care. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. Although most smarter folks would wait to write this post until they make it through, I want to share a profound experience – at least to me, a first time founder.

 

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The Startup Menace

In late 2012, we raised a sizable seed funding from some of the hottest names in Canada, been tech-crunched, signed a partnership with SalesForce, launched a premium app with HooteSuite, inked a few other partnerships with large agencies, had media flogging us and raving about us, people wanting to work with us and we were pounding out code like nobody’s business.

 

 

 

holy_shitAttack of the Business Model

The problem was… it was indeed no body’s business. Soon we realized our product would never scale, the press died down and we were left scurrying towards a… you guessed it… pivot. (Except that we didn’t call it that). We survived that storm, the board supported us through figuring out our shit and build, rinse, repeat.

 

After much effort and grind, we are currently at the best place we’ve ever been at. Customers want us, large enterprises return our calls and set up 2nd and 3rd and 4th meetings. They take our ideas and pass them on to their creative departments. They line up as pilots.

 

 Revenge of the Bank Balance

Except…. we’re out of money. And, after a couple failed tries and overall rookieness, we’re not winning any awards with our boards’ confidence. I think I experienced what it feels like, getting kicked in the nuts, at our last board meeting!

 

 Return of a Game Plan

Within the last week, we’ve had to lay off some very talented and some of our favourite folks, and, in spite of making quite meager salaries, take paycuts ourselves. We talked to the rest of the team to describe what we were up against and what our game plan was. We need to be super focused and our future depends on the timelines of some of the customers’ in our pipelines and other external things that we can’t always control. We’ve also realized that we should have done this a couple months ago. Sounds grim, right?

 

LeadSift Team Strikes Back

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But I feel compelled at this point, to quote some of our teammates and employees reactions when we broke this news to them. Ranging from the one person wanting to keep helping us with LeadSift for free to another person insisting that he wants a paycut with the founders! Another founding member who had kids, family, house, the whole 9 yards of responsibility, after a few beers that night, came in next morning and kept reassuring us that he’s here till the end and he’ll do anything for LeadSift, anything. Among other things that day, he gave away his personal cell phone number to a client who runs a 24/7 call center, for customer support requests, to ensure no matter what, we do our best! We support our university by hiring students for research and our post doc student took some of the pressure off our shoulders and talked to the professors and the research assistants giving them the disappointing news. A co-founder, who just had a kid, offered to go off payroll and on parental leave to save money.

 

New Hope

You might know, that as egoistic over achieving startup people, we go through a lot of clashes.

But, we all came in the next day, stronger, more determined, more unified than I’ve ever seen the team. Everyone had their war paint on. Everyone was aligned on one goal, and one goal alone. Each and every move, strategy, discussion, no matter how doomed it should have been, seemed more pumped, hopeful, exciting, confident. A chance to prove ourselves, a chance for victory, a chance to not die a zombie but a plan to go out with a bang if needed.

 

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There is absolutely no way, that with this team, this passion, this hard work and this loyalty and authenticity, we won’t see a win. And… come to think of it, this IS our win! Anything else, is just gravy.

 

 

 

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Founders’ Mania

This is going to be a very hard piece to write, because some of the thoughts are fogged by my personal emotions while the others are just controversial.

For the last few years, tech-company founders of the young, unabashed, hoodie-wearing type are being given celebrity status that is hurting their business and everyone else involved. And this needs to stop before there’s too many people crushed and a bubble burst and a lot of good cash lost.

Let me elaborate where I am coming from.

A lot of the first time founders find themselves flogged by media and hype. It’s not easy starting a company but come on, people have been starting businesses and making money from them for ages and, that endeavor, until recently, has never been looked upon as something “heroic”. This pr and superfluous attention is drawing more and more people into “startups” just because they like the way it sounds and not necessarily because they have a great business idea that they are committed to. This is spawning lots of really bad startups which live with ridiculous expectations.

The coolness of startups are also attracting and creating lots venture capitalists or investors – either people with personal wealth or folks who have been hired by institutional VCs because they needed positions filled. These investors create a whole new round of issues – they bring with them limited experience of running and growing a company, very little experience of leadership and venture capital and a tiny or non-existent network of connections – therefore being unable to support the young startups with the essentials they need at the early stages.

Who suffers? Almost every startup. While lots of the startups actually have a real business idea, the enchantments of startup life puts unnecessary pressure to live up-to the big fake picture. It instils incorrect priorities in pursuing “cool swag”, promotes stupid ideologies as the CEO is hailed as a rockstar, creates confusion as the tiny company slogs their ass off with minimal mentoring and publicizes ridiculous expectations about the little company that has a 99% chance to fail. It creates an unhealthy environment for employees who join startups and are expected to work super hard for a lower pay while neglecting family and have little to gain other than experience – the unfair part being, even in the off-chance that the company succeeds, the founders make most of the cash.

And the newly christened investors end up funding one failed startup after another.

 

 

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Driven vs Passionate… think about it.

It was a while ago when we were talking about hiring a person and after interviewing two people, both of whom we really liked, when one of my co-founders said: “well, she’s passionate but he’s a lot more driven” implying that drive, obviously, makes that person more qualified.

We must have heard this before and mostly agree: Drive is a great skill to have at any job, but definitely at a startup.

And I have seen often that men are more driven than women. Men are the ones to raise their hand, ask for the raise, negotiate their salary and overall, keep looking for the next best thing whereas women would often keep quite so they can give proper credit to team members, give more time to family, let others shine and attribute their successes to external factors.

In India, (where I come from), women will often give up well-deserved inheritance to avoid conflicts with brothers which can tear a family apart. Would you call that lack of drive or driving for the correct thing?

I’ve noticed, very often, women taking a back seat so that their employees can take credit for the work they did. Is that less driven or putting importance in the real and honest things?

I was at a conference recently and at a talk, Adora Cheung, founder of HomeJoy, who said that after she built the software and didn’t have any customers, they decided they need to understand the business of professional cleaning. Since she was the engineer on the team (of her and her brother) and the product was built already, she took up the job of cleaning other people’s houses  and offices and trying to hide away from people she knew. Is that driven or is it just taking one for the team?

What I am trying to say is, the of leaders today and of tomorrow need to acknowledge the difference between drive, passion and loyalty. It’s great to find someone driven as long as the drive is not selfish! But it’s better to have someone passionate and loyal. And not let women be incorrectly judged by yet another double-edged sword.

 

 

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Why are the all best chefs.. men?

A lot of us must have wondered about why the famous and most well known chefs are all male? It makes no sense given that even today, most of the cooking in any household is done by women.

This has often confused me, and among the suggestions provided in the Quora, like crazy work hours (stay at home women work 365.25/24/7) and uncomfortable environments (heat in the kitchen, really?) I have heard many ridiculous answers from  folks around me such as “women can only ever be average at anything”, “men are smarter, that’s why”. Well no surprise there, considering I hail from a country which is the worlds 4th most dangerous place for women and is filled with misogynistic bigots.

But wait, it’s not just India. All around the world, even while we rave about our mom’s succulent brisket/murgh massallum and grandma’s amazing pie/patishapta, the best chefs are men.

I have an explanation. Have you ever heard of the PayPal mafia? It’s one of the greatest stories in startup culture where the founding partners and employees of PayPal had their big “exit” to eBay and got very rich overnight and instead of taking a break, they went ahead and founded and invested in many many more successful companies and got to be termed as the “PayPal Mafia” in the Silicon Valley. The secret to this is, as Ryan Holmes, founder of HootSuite explains, very simple: “The PayPal buyout gave some very young, very ambitious people the confidence to try for another big win and an experienced network to fund them.” That’s it, that’s the magical secret ingredient – confidence!

Growing up, my family raved about what an awesome cook my elder cousin was because he made great “maggi noodles” – which is Indian Mr. Noodles. And apparently, my younger cousin made the best shakes – he put bananas and vanilla ice cream in the blender and left a huge mess in the kitchen every time. I never thought of it too much and enjoyed the food and fattened up well 😉 My dad was also known to be a great cook (and I think he is too) and made mutton curry, where he needed at least 2 sous-chefs while at it and turned the house upside down and his specialty was – the curry had as many kilos of chillis as meat and was always too spicy for anyone to eat. Yet, everyone applauded them on. Because them cooking was special in itself. When I was in high school, I saw my girl friends cook entire dinners because it was simply expected of them.

I have seen this repeated over and over and over. In various walks of life. Among people from all over the world. Chinese, Canadian, Persian, Indian, Polish. I once heard my friends mother tell him that he makes the best microwavable popcorn! And it’s not just wth cooking. Having an accepting, supporting cheering team always behind you gives you the courage and confidence to try, experiment, fail, succeed.

Tell me.. do you agree? How little signs and unawareness can make life changing differences? Do you think our future generations deserve better, deserve a fair chance to succeed and excel? Are you going to be the change you want to see?

 

 

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Understand… Accept… Reform

You can’t clean a dirty house unless you accept that it’s dirty and understand it’s dirty.. because why would you clean and even if you did, what or where would you clean? A cleaning can only happen in this order:

  1. Accept it
  2. Understand it
  3. Clean it

It goes for every dirty problem while some of the more sensitive issues are accompanied by a complacency, a status-quo. Gender bias is one such thing, it’s difficult to talk about and sometimes quantify or prove, it’s the underbelly of corporate offices and households. Folks are often left questioning themselves about the truth because gaslighting can be so intense that no statistics are enough.

This tumblr comment, on the other hand, does an amazing job at describing some of the elusive effects of gender inequality.

A ProChoice Generation’s Tumbler Post

Hat Tip to you Sir!

 

 

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First Love, First Cheque & Recurrence of Happy – All from Marketing

At LeadSift, we launched a HootSuite app, started a new PR campaign, began aggressive sales and took marketing by the horns, all within a couple weeks. Long Overdue and some good display of team Hustling! And what we found out from this exercise is.. total dope!

 

At any cash-strapped company, it’s always marketing that takes a back seat. Why spend money on blogging when we can write it ourselves. Why pay for PR when we can just use Facebook and Twitter (to broadcast it to who? Our friends???). We can obviously create some slides ourselves – after all we made so many in school! Those slides look damn good when pitching to the Fortune 500 companies. We got all these awesome investors, can’t we just badger them to get us into the bigger publications or customers? The product is good, we just push sales and get customers – right? NO. No. Not at all!

 

Here’s a real life scenario: An online bank cold-emailed Hatem and gave him an awesome no fee banking deal! Our first reaction was.. is it spam or is it a scam, let’s scram! If it would have been a bank we’d heard of, a cool new bank that did away with establishment costs and hence had lower interest rate and no fees banking – we’d be ecstatic that they emailed us! The word of mouth epidemic has amazing powers. Would you want to be the unknown amazing product? Would you have your sales team cold call people and offer a powerful cloud-based social-local-mobile app in spite of no one having ever having heard of it? No. It would do injustice to your sales team. And your product team deserves better.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I am an arrogant nerd and a non-believer of all non-tech roles, scoffer of all MBA’s. But Marketing has it’s role. A role that can make a startup happy! A place important enough that you need to put in money and quality time in it. Marketing can make you or your competition successful. If you’re a startup reading this, please do not skimp on your marketing budget, do not wait till the stars line up to start PR, don’t assume you can make the best slide decks… hand it over to the pros <And here’s a Heartfelt Shout out to LeadSift’s marketing team>! Let’s keep it coming~

 

 

 

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Feeling of can’t keep up

I am a start-up co-founder. I am also an egoistic, perfectionist control freak, borderline asshole (there’s some debate on which side of the border I am in). Often these alpha traits converge into a mash of anger and disappointment, overall a downward spiral where Over Achieving Requirements and Over Arching Deadlines rule your life.

wanna_scream

 

Yep, I know you’ve been there too.

I don’t have answers on how to fix it. Yet, I know I’m not alone and neither are you. Since I’ve have been at this for nearly two years, there are some things that are sometimes successful at making it possible to live through it, with it… nay… conquer it. Or things that I hope to be reminded of those days when I’m going down the rabbit hole and this is short chronicle.

1. Trust your founding team and speak up right away and act right away. If your founding team has cracks… you’re not going to make it through. (Everyone’s heard this many times)

2. Take the tough decisions, fire, hire, add the new feature or don’t. Stop deliberating and going round in circles! Two meetings per feature, if a feature is brought up in the 3rd meeting, you could do better! (We’ve failed at this a handful of times and it’s caused us tons of grief)

3. Don’t dip your nose/hands in “everything” just because your life depends on it (yes, I agree your life does depend on it). You cannot control every aspect of a business and neither are you the best person for it. Against popular media, it’s never a one person company (nope, not even Steve Jobs) and without your team, you will not ship shit! (I am guilty of this where I try to keep my fingers in every pie expecting a sense of sanity/control, but I think I’m getting better)

4. Measure. We usually think things are much bleaker than they actually are because we’re disposed to being scared. (We once thought we were at the lowest point but we stepped back to realize we had 7 Fortune1000 clients in our funnel!)

5. Celebrate the wins, even the smallest ones. High five, get Chinese take out, get beer, get ice cream. Go out together and play cricket or paintball, get a bell in the office and ring it at every good news. (I have yet to try this but I REALLY want to, need buy-in from my co-founders.)

6. Breathe. Believe. Repeat.

sheldon_breathe

 

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For those who are in denial that sexism exists!

This Twitter Stream about #EveryDaySexism caught my attention, which then very quickly turned into anger and then exasperation.

“The Everyday Sexism Project exists to catalogue instances of sexism experienced by women on a day to day basis. They might be serious or minor, outrageously offensive or so niggling and normalized that you don’t even feel able to protest.

Everyday sexism can be very well summed up in the words of an 80 year old woman who said in the EverydaySexism blog: “I have never met any woman who has not been sexually harassed”, amen to that! You’ll find some trolls, drama, anger, high emotions but mostly people exposing what we like best to ignore and pretend didn’t happen or rarely happens. Or like to pretend that it happens only to others, or that it’s normal, acceptable, expected. It is SO deeply ingrained into our way of life, that we don’t even notice it (comments like “you’re funny for a girl” or jokes like the one in this image!)

What’s obvious and extremely disturbing is that the sexist state of mind exists in both males and females. Victim blaming is common for females to partake in as well, asking questions like “what were you wearing? were you drinking? you guys always hung out together? was it an accident?”… etc. No one asks these questions if someone gets mugged; asking these questions insinuates that a victim of sexual harassment or a sexual crime brought this on themselves! Ridiculous!

To deal with this issue, we need both sides of the equation. We needed white men to abolish slavery. We have straight people who are fighting for equal rights for homosexuals. We need the majority of the people in power to first accept the problem and then act as a team to fix it! The problem is not equal rights any more, women have had equal rights on pen and paper for a while. The problem is empowerment. In spite of equal rights, discrimination happens everyday, in forms of salary differences, likability, promotion, credibility and marketing of pink glitter dolls! We need to see the paradoxes that exist, accept them and then work on them! Of course the changes must  come from within but we also need the majority of men to want to empower women.

So are we, the educated, privileged, intellectual disruptors of the world just going to sit back, complain, shake our heads and do nothing?

 

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Dude, Take 5…

I love my co-founders… well ok, I usually like at least one of them each day 😉 and we have 4 so there’s enough to go around!

Of course, like every startup, we go through a barrage of difficult decision making, often about things we don’t know enough of (the bliss of trying to carve out a new market!). Which means it’s not always fully logical but guided by gut feelings and ego fueled wars often take over our discussions. We all know how detrimental it is for us and we try to put in fixes (different people have veto for different things, vote for things we deem need majority etc.) but alas, sometime we don’t let go of our “honour”!

Friendly_Fight

 

And then, on the same day, I came across these two amazing blogs, “Give it Five Minutes” and “I Get It”. Woahhh – the first thing I thought was… who has five minutes.. we need it finalized NOW so we can begin building and shipping it. But wait.. is that a push back the moment I read something new? Irony.

We want more creativity, support, understanding, faith. We’ve gotto take 5. Or, 10. Send out an outline of the ideas or agenda before any meeting so everyone has time to marinate them, and if new ideas come up and unless there is an absolute obvious reason to junk it, we’ll take an hour before we decide to go for it or against. It’s OK if we don’t take the decision RIGHT NOW. It’s better if we take a decision a day late if it happens to be the right one, the next best thing, the silver bullet instead of us having missed it because we were undercover douches or egomaniacs.

Tl,Dr; Remember to be nice, respectful. Remember, our hearts beat for the same thing!

I am going to try and implement this strategy in our meetings moving forward – unless of course, I receive pushback 😉

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