The Idea Dude


Sunday, March 27, 2011

Creating your A-team

There's a lot of talk in the blogosphere about startups and hiring the smartest people you know and creating the A-team. Unfortunately 'A' seems to be always associated with smart and knowledge. I beg to differ. The A-player is package deal. Here's what I look for.

A = ability. That's a given, there must be some level of skills that you bring to the table. However, it is important to remember that in all likelihood, the skills that you have today are insufficient for tomorrow.

A = aptitude. My definition, the readiness and quickness to learn. Speed is everything, long gestation of talent eats up resources and opportunities.

A = attitude. In a start-up there is no job description, it's about getting the job done. I look for people who sees gaps and fills them on a regular basis.

A = agility. Being able to change course on a dime. What you are asked to do tomorrow may not be the same as what you are doing today. Markets, trends, products change on the Internet so rapidly, we require people who can react, retool and reinvent continuously.

Startups are in generally in a continuous state of reinvention

Balance is luxury not the norm. As I'm writing this, I realize what I'm asking for. People who are fearless, passionate and proud about what they do. People who love what they do. And the 'DO' part is not software development, or marketing or any of the extrinsic job descriptions. 'DO' means people who are continually motivated to create, challenge, refactor, discover, explore and in the course of their journey, they may just create milestones that are simply awesome.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Changing trajectories

Just got back from Waterloo to recruit the next team of students for the summer. The current team is working out beyond my expectations. I only wish we started earlier. To say we are helping change the lives of some really smart young engineers may be a stretch but we're certainly have a hand in changing their trajectories.

Hopefully but the end of each work period, they learn about what it takes to be hungry, savvy entrepreneurs. Learning about problems that change even while you work on them. Looking at the world with incomplete lenses, finding solutions in the most unexpected places. Most of all, learning about working in teams and the synergy that arises from it.

Hang around young people and you can drink from the fountain of energy.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Building corporate culture from scratch

I came across some interesting answers to how do you create corporate culture from scratch

The answer IMHO is that you never really build it from scratch. The company yes, the culture no. Why? Because the culture is something that is brought in by the co-founders. They set the tone of how the company is run, how the products are built and how the people who help build the company are treated.

The culture of the co-founder is read in books or taught in schools. It is deeper than that, it is how he or she thinks about things, how they build stuff and how they treat people. For the one reason, bringing in an enterprise seasoned CEO or VC may not be the best option, neither is keeping a serial entrepreneur at the helm when the company has over a hundred people. It is hard to find a man for all seasons. Only a few come to mind.

Start-ups require people to be agile because stuff happens. Which means check your egos at the door please. Listen to everyone around you but the buck stops here. Everyone is a resource and everyone must be multi-skilled. I happen to be the first one at the office every morning which means it makes sense that I vacuum the floors. You may wonder if that isn't a waste of my time. Actually no, I figured out how to make that a play situation. Instead of whistling while I vacuum, I think, prioritize my day or ponder about that elusive bug. Cray used to dig tunnels while he designed his supercomputers. I vacuum. Two hours later, I teach. In between that I code. Between coffee and and the next compile I pay bills.

I'm not the only one. Sharleen has taken over producing the graphical elements. When she isn't doing that she's worrying about the user experience of our prototype. Between coffee and the next photoshop graphic, you'll find her surveying the web. She is our eyes and ears, watching and listening to the pulse of the web. And she manages to squeeze in organizing our next batch of recruits. She is also HR. Creativity starts with her.

Tony will be fixing servers, working on customer projects that have fallen off my table, and mentoring our co-ops. He is our resident tech guru but is known to throw in some sharp insight that turns our product around. And if I don't watch him, he'll sneak by and wash my coffee cup.

This is a typical day at the Play Dynamics playground. There are no rules just people who love coming in and doing stuff that needs to be done. There are no egos, and no 'not my job' here. Gaps need to be filled and people step up to fill them. That's the culture. We're bootstrapped so everything is lean and mean but it buys us the valuable time to play without agendas, without borders. We have super advisors but none who demand that we make a dollar by some arbitrary date. They understand the need for us to find our path and get the train on the right set of rails.

The longevity is not in our products but our band of heroes. I'm pragmatic enough to know the internet is fickle and often success comes by way of a heavy dose of luck. What we do agree on around here that the game may and will change but the players remain the same. That's what our investors should be investing in.

Today my thought is:

Our possibilities are only limited by our own imagination

Monday, March 14, 2011

How Co-op Programs Can be a Win-Win

In January we took a huge leap of faith and employed 6 co-op students. Half the motivation was we had too much to do and very little budget to do it. But the overwhelming reason for doing it was I had heard so many horror stories about what co-op students (especially first year students) actually did for their employers.

Co-op work terms are meant for students to get real-world exposure of what they could expect when they graduate. Often their experience ends up being menial jobs like testing, making coffee, filling in forms and other mindless, boring tasks. The reason is twofold, either the employer sees this as an opportunity for really cheap labor but often it is because they are so busy, they have very little time to plan or train what these students should be doing when they arrive.

What it really boils down to is a waste of a pool of highly intelligent individuals in too many circumstances. At Play Dynamics, we have a philosophy that the more we give to the system, the more we will get back. We believed that we could take a group of really smart individuals and despite their lack of experience, they could contribute meaningfully to our cause. In return, they would receive the best work experience possible, something that they would be proud to put on their resumes and help them in their studies and in finding other jobs in the future.

The recipe is so simple.
1) Respect. They are inexpensive because they are co-ops but they are also smart. Treat them like peers, not second class citizens.
2) Train. The fact that they are inexpensive means you can afford to spend time training and mentoring them. You'll be amazed how fast they can be once you take the time to show them how.
3) Culture. Use the opportunity to teach them not just the technical aspects of the business but give back to the system by teaching them about business, marketing, sales and decision making. Most can be done as informal 5 min chats. They are like sponges waiting to absorb everything you have.
4) Motivate. Show them how much you love what you do and they will eagerly follow. Energy is infectious.
5) Challenge. Breed the culture of never giving up, inspiring and helping others, being curious and thinking of what is possible instead of lamenting the impossible.

The results can be amazing.
1) They will give back everything you give them and more.
2) They will tell their colleagues and friends about you making it easier to get the next batch of students.
3) They are an inexpensive way of buying you time, to do the things you don't or never had the time to do.
4) The best of all, you leave every day knowing that you can give back to the system that will one day benefit everyone. And maybe, just maybe one of them may turn out to be the next software billionaire or the Nobel prize winner.

At Play Dynamics, our students love coming to work, because they come to play. Play is work and work is play. Play is learning and while they learn, they do the tasks that we need to run the business. In 6 weeks, they have learnt to configure Apache servers, write PHP code, create SQL database, program iPhones, research tough technical issues. Most probably they have already done more in that time than many other co-ops in two terms or more. And during that time, they have helped us achieve stuff we simply have no time to do.

Win-win is possible, if we only took time to invest because that investment buys us time.

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Way of the Bamboo

Bamboo is the fast growing plant on earth. There is a species called Moso which can grow up to 119cm (47 inches) in 24 hours and 24m (79 feet) high in 40 days. It is actually a grass although most people do not think of bamboo as such.

Ironically, during the first few years (3-5 years), there is no visible growth and then magically, it starts its astronomical growth spurt as described earlier. Unseen by most of us during the time of 'dormancy', it is actually building a vast root system in preparation of the growth phase. A great description of the bamboo lifecycle can be found here.

It describes the path of Play Dynamics. For over 4 years, Tony and I founded and ran TheGoodBlogs. TheGoodBlogs was not a financial success, but we carried on regardless because I believed in 2 things. Firstly, unless you participate you will not find opportunity. Secondly, every part of the journey has some learning and that learning prepares you for greater things to come.

Learning about Moso bamboo has given me hope that the last 4-5 years has been just that, the preparation phase. We learnt first hand about building scalable websites, dabbled in mobile applications, built an incredible network of people who continue to serve as advisors and sounding boards.

I believe most startups never make it past year one simply because they are unprepared. Bamboo would not be able to grow rapidly and to great heights if it not for the giant root network they established. The same is true for startups. It is rare that someone hits it out the park in their first try. We only see the superstars not the other 99.9% that never make it for whatever reason.

Play Dynamics was conceived in November last year with my good friends Sharleen and Tony. Being old and scarred (in Internet years), we were hesitant to pull the trigger, plus the fact we were bogged down with an intensive consulting contract. As the New Year unfolded, we decided this was the time. In hindsight, it was not so much the product ideas that intrigued me, it was the fact that collectively this group had three incredible ingredients: experience, creativity and energy.

Moments like this come often only once a lifetime.

In the space of 3 weeks, we moved offices, built a team of 10 and was up and running without missing a heartbeat. After month 2, we are still rocking, with product ideas and prototypes to boot, at the same time managing our consulting revenue to pay the bills. Four years ago, we would not have been able to move as decisively and quickly as we have this year. Most decisions and knowing what to do came naturally and when we didn't know, I knew who to call.

Bamboo groves are often called colonies because like grass, they never grow alone. As in the previous blog post, I really believe all that preparation paid off and now we have the right to play. So far, we're growing as group in leaps and bounds, hopefully our root network of people and knowledge will be able to sustain us.

At the end of the day, I am realistic, some of our ideas will tank and others will succeed wildly. That is business reality. But I'm convinced that longevity is not in the products but the people who create them and who can't wait each day to come to work to play.

This is the Way of the Bamboo.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Right to Play

The Idea Dude didn't leave the building, he was in the basement... yet again. Play Dynamics is officially underway. New offices, new team and a new vision.

What do I say after a 3 month blog hiatus? Where do I start? There's a firehose of thoughts and emotions and some of it is too early to say or tell. So here's an attempt why I'm so excited about NOW.

The Right to Play
The first part of my career was about developing software development skills. It's akin to knowing the basic principles of cooking. What ingredients to use, when and how to use them.

The second part was building teams and business development. I was learning how to create environments that made people exceed their own expectations and, in doing so, help you exceed your goals. I was learning about product design and working with people who didn't code but sold products. In a restaurant, it's called hiring your sous chefs, the front of the house staff, the managers, the waiters and dealing with customers.

The third part was running your company no matter how small it was. Doing the accounts, taxes, paying rent, insurance and all the stuff, like oxygen, isn't the meaning of life but necessary for survival. This was like owning your restaurant.

All of the above wasn't the holy grail. It never was. I didn't even know what it was myself. In hindsight, it was preparation for this moment. The moment I can truly say, I have the right to play.

The State of Play
This is what we do at Play Dynamics, from the running of the company, building the team, creating the products, it's done with a pervasive culture of play. It's an on-going experiment where we run fast and fail fast. Re-invention and pivoting isn't an event, it is an on-going process from day one.

We're proving work and play are not opposite sides of the coin. The energy every day is just overwhelming. The only regret is there are only 24 hours in a day. Even in sleep, we dream of play.

It feels good, it feels right. I love our team, our mission, our culture, our energy. It feels like the planets are aligned. And shortly, the rest of you will be able to see the first fruits of our play.

Everybody deserves the right to play sometime in their lives. We've just arrived at ours.

We're currently in our labs in a constant State of Play.

Stay tuned