Episode 462 | Competing Against an 800 lb. Gorilla, Splitting from Your Co-founder, and More Listener Questions (with Jeff Epstein)
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob along with co-host Jeff Epstein, answer a number of listener questions on topics including competing against a giant company, splitting from a co-founder, having enough features and more.
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Rob: Welcome to this week’s episode for Startups for the Rest of Us. I’m your host, Rob Walling. On this week’s show, we enter listener questions on topics like competing against a 900-pound gorilla, splitting from your co-founder, and whether there is such a thing as having enough features in your app. I welcome Jeff Epstein back on the show to help me answer your questions. This is Startups for the Rest of Us episode 462.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing startups. Whether you’ve built your fifth start up or you’re thinking about your first. I’m Rob and today with Jeff Epstein, we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the mistakes we’ve made in the past.
Welcome back to Startups for the Rest of Us. Thanks for joining me. You took on the show, we covered topics relating to building and growing startups in order to provide ourselves a better life, improve the world in a small way. We strive to have a positive impact on other people, be it your customers, your team, your family. We’re ambitious founders but we’re not willing to sacrifice our life, our health, or our families to grow a company.
We have several show formats for Startups for the Rest of Us. Every month or two, Mike Taber comes on and updates us on his entrepreneurial journey. We also have some tactic and teaching episodes, I do some interviews now and again, founder hot seats, and today’s episode is all about listener questions. It’s questions from you and folks like you who are listening, they write in or send an audio question and we do our best to think it through. I really think about what I would do in their shoes and then answer the question.
Jeff Epstein comes to join me today. If you remember back to episode 453, we talked through his journey as a non-technical founder, of building a SaaS app to between $5 million and $10 million ARR, and then exiting that. He had a pretty stressful and impactful journey, life-changing journey for him, and he has a lot of experience under his belt. I think you’ll enjoy the questions that we answer today.
Before we dive into the questions, I want to remind you that MicroConf Minneapolis is next April 19th through 23rd, so you’re going to want to block those dates off on your calendar. Also let you know again that the TinySeed application process opens on November 1st. It will run for about a month, so if you are interested in potentially being part of our next batch, enter your email at tinyseed.com.
As well as tease again about my secret podcast project I’ve been working on for about three or four months and I hope you enjoy that. I’ll have more info on that as I get more of that produced. Just want it to be a bit further along before I start putting stuff like that out in public. With that, let’s dive into our listener questions today.
Jeff: thanks so much for coming back on the show.
Jeff: Hey, thanks for having me, Rob. I appreciate it.
Rob: Absolutely. We have some good questions to run through today. The first was from Twitter. I actually did a casual call-for-questions to see—after your episode went live—if anyone had a question for you and Fuego Online sent this question. He said, “Did Jeff Epstein feel way out of his depth? I know I do sometimes and I have a technical partner.”
Jeff: Yes, definitely out of my depth many times. Not necessary as much being technical or not technical, but I think it just depends on the stage of the business. For me, that probably happen pretty regularly where you feel that way.
Rob: I think that’s really common. I feel way out of my depth most of the time I’m doing something interesting, I’m learning, and it’s stretching me. I say I feel out of my depth. He said way out of your depth, which I do think is a differentiation. There’s comfort zone and then there’s almost that breaking point.
I have to imagine there were several moments over your eight- or nine-year journey that you’re on the edge, of like, “Oh my gosh, this might not work,” or, “Oh my gosh, this is the most stress I’ve ever felt.” Is there a time you could take us to?
Jeff: Yes. For me, I certainly felt over my head in many scenarios, and like you said, I’m a first-time founder. So, everything is essentially new for me. As we grow, there are new challenges ahead and there’s so many situations where I felt that way.
Two probably stick out in terms of really a horrible feeling of what did I get myself into. One was when we changed co-founders pretty early on before we even finished fund-raising. The early employee and I didn’t see eye-to-eye and he left the company. I was left with not much in terms of a team. That was one.
Another one was actually much later, maybe five years later and it was when for the first time you realize that there’s a lot of things happening that you are not aware of. This was when we’re about 20 people or so. It was one of those situations where you’re like, “Wow, I really need to step up my game.”
Basically, what happened was there was just a lot of people that weren’t happy with some people in the company or just the way things were. A lot of it was my fault, some of it I frankly didn’t know about and didn’t have the communication structure in place to solve those things or to get the feedback channels filtered up to myself. That was a really eye-opening experience and been pretty painful.
The one thing I would say is, I’m pretty confident in myself being able to learn quickly. I think that’s—for better or worse—kind of my superpower, so to speak, where if I just have the information, I figure I can do something pretty well with it. For me, it’s just a matter of figuring out what the issues are, what the problems are, and what are the available options to start fixing it. When that happens, I think I’ve done pretty well.
Rob: I would agree. I’m going to keep saying on the show more than half of being a successful entrepreneur is managing your own psychology. Part of that is believing that you can get it done, taking things that seem like roadblocks and saying, “How do I turn these into speed bumps? What are the five, six, seven options here?” No matter how bad, no matter how good, lay them all out, look at it, and move ahead. It’s like having confidence in yourself that you can figure this out.
There’s so few things that are actually company-ending. There are obviously a few, but so many of them in our heads. I know I’ve done this. You just catastrophize it. You’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is the worst thing ever. What have I built?” This will be done in three days if you handle it well. If you actually do the right thing, it will smooth over and be done in a week or whenever.
Let’s dive into our next question and it is a voicemail about competing in a space when there’s an 800-pound gorilla, namely Shopify.
Ahmed: Hi, Rob. This is Ahmed from Toronto, Canada. I have a question regarding starting a startup in a very competitive space like, say, ecommerce, specifically competing with a company like Shopify, which is pretty much a company that has been doing everything right in terms of technology, focusing on the low-end market. They also have Shopify Plus targeting more enterprisey customers.
They have a core set of features which are then built upon by app developers. They have a market effect with agencies. They have a very good content marketing strategy on their blog, and they’re dealing with B2B customers who might not be as price-sensitive as the B2C customer. So, concerning all these things, do you think it’s possible to still carve out a niche within the ecommerce space and compete with a company like Shopify? Thanks. Bye.
Rob: What do you think, Jeff? This is a tough question, obviously, but what are your thoughts on it?
Jeff: It’s surely not an area where I would necessarily look to start a company. I think if you have one, if you’re growing and doing well, there’s certainly going to be opportunities. I’m a fundamental believer that companies such as Shopify or Amazon always have blind spots and they have specific areas which don’t make sense for them to focus on, which OS or niche businesses spring up to serve those needs.
If you’re looking to start, it wouldn’t be my top choice, but if you are already building a brand and a company, you have customers. I would say focus on why customers are choosing you or why they’re considering you and make sure that you really hone in on those areas so that you can continue in that niche market for now.
Rob: Yeah. I love the answer of blind spots. That’s the first thing that came to my mind, is where are the disgruntled Shopify customers? Go to the forums. When you get this big, you’ve heard of like quickbookssucks.com where everybody rags on QuickBooks. Is there one of those for Shopify? Where are the disgruntled people who say, “Oh, Shopify doesn’t do this well,” or like you said, it’s not worth their time to go into, whether it’s a vertical niche, or whether it’s to build a certain type of feature, or whether they have just technical debt, or thousands of lines of code, or tens of thousands, tens of thousands of customers, and you just can’t change things overnight.
This is the playbook that we did with Drip. When we launched Drip, it was a mess. Think of not Drip itself, the market. Think of Mailchimp, they’re dominance with their free plan. Free up to 2000 subscribers. How do you and could possibly enter that and charge at that level? We had Infusionsoft, Pardot, Marketo. Those are all but marketing automation providers. We had Constant Contact and AWeber who had their own niches. It’s like the SMB was Constant Contact and AWeber was more into the info marketer space.
No one in their right mind would enter that space and yet we found ourselves competing against them. It was exactly what we talked about here is we looked at people didn’t like Infusionsoft because they charge this $2000 upfront fee, because they’re $300 a month and up, because they’re aggressive with their sales, because the product was not very good, it was hard to use, it was buggy.
Mailchimp, a company I’ve always respected, wasn’t moving fast enough with the automation. People wanted to be able to click a link and move from here to there. There were features that people wanted from Infusionsoft but Mailchimp and AWeber were not building. So, we as a startup, what’s the advantage?
One of your advantages is you move so quickly. We could build and launch automations in months. Where did it took them? Literally, years. That’s, to me, the advantages. It’s not an Achilles heel, it’s not like you’re going to kill them. The metaphor doesn’t quite work, but it’s a vulnerability or, as you said, a blind spot that even if they are moving there, they haven’t gotten there yet, and that’s what I would look at. I don’t know the ecommerce space well enough to know what those are for Shopify, but I do know that, that’s what I’d be looking for.
Jeff: One thing I would add, Rob, and this is where you had a ton of ability to kind of see the future is that you were looking at marketing automation companies for yourself and to leverage them. If you’re going to get into this type of business, it’s more than an intellectual exercise. The person needs to actually know or have their own specific pain. That would be really big here instead of just guessing that they maybe are power users or that they’re selling and they’re looking for another way to do something that they can’t do with Shopify. That would be a really great way to start.
Rob: Yeah, it’s a good point. If you’re going to enter a less competitive space, you don’t always need to be your first user, you don’t always need to build for your own pain. If you’re going to enter a space like competing against Shopify or Mailchimp, I would never say always, but I would say it’s a really good idea. It’s another tool in your toolbelt to have that domain expertise. So, thanks for the question. I hope that was helpful.
Our next question comes from Nick. He’s got a couple of questions. He has some kind words about the podcast. He started with, “I love the refreshed format of the podcast. Insightful and you could really feel a new surge of energy. Well done. Thanks for continuing to make it such a great show.” Then he transitions into talking about his business. He says, “Each stage of my business has brought fresh challenges and right now I have a couple of questions. It would be great to hear your thoughts on. The first question is this, splitting from a co-founder when your business is successful.” Jeff, we know your story, we know that you went through this yourself. I’m curious to hear your take.
He says, “My co-founder and I have been in business together for 12 years. Initially, we ran a successful niche consulting firm before pivoting into a product business in 2016. A product is a B2B app that helps financial companies. It’s growing slowly and steadily. We just hit $1 million in ARR.” Congrats on that, by the way. “While I’m loving the product journey, my co-founder feels differently. He’s 20 years older than I am and he wants to do other things with his time.
Our working relationship has probably run its course, but he feels his best exit is to market the business for sale and I don’t share that view. While I’m open to doing it, I’d like to keep my options open. We’ve been fortunate to find product market fit, and while our addressable market is small, I feel our business has further to run. I’ve looked at options to buy him out, but he would want a market-level multiple evaluation, which is significant. He’s also not keen in acting as a silent partner.
Currently, I hold a majority stake. I am willing to buy more shares but would also appreciate a new strategic partner who can add value in our sector. What would be my best course of action?”
I don’t know that we can recommend the best course of action, but I do think we can bat around a few ideas because I don’t think this is necessarily clear-cut. What are your thoughts, Jeff?
Jeff: In my former life, I’m an attorney, I went to law school, and talked to quite a bit of founders. One thing that is so important, having gone through it myself, is understanding how you can unwind or exit a business from a founder perspective, especially when you’re close to 50/50. It’s not clear here but it sounds like the founders have a pretty large stake each and one of them is obviously the majority. That’s always challenging.
Your best course of action, again, depends on a lot of factors. One is, do you want to retain a good relationship with this person going forward? Also, how much of a hassle do you want to have in terms of managing this process versus running the business? Legally, again, I don’t know your operating limit. You should have one; kind of the rules of what you’re allowed to do or able to do are probably contained in there.
Generally, as a majority owner, you have most of the power. You’re certainly would be able to block or not have a sale of the business happen. A couple of things that I would think of off the top of my head is maybe try to find an independent. Someone who can value the business in a fair way. Everyone loves to sell, even if it’s a house or some other asset. The reality is it’s a lot harder than it seems and it usually sells for a lot less than you expect.
I think that having on through a business sale is not at all you would expect and I’m sure Rob can say the same thing. Just putting a number on it from the minority perspective, that’s probably not the best outcome. Ultimately, hopefully you guys could sit down and come to a conclusion. You might have to get creative in terms of an earn-out or payments over a period of years, and/or maybe phasing out the hours worked. My recommended course of action is come to the table and figure something out as partners instead of trying to go the legal route.
Again, as a majority partner, you should know that you probably do have the upper hand in some way based on you are the majority and you probably have the voting ability to do things that might not be favorable for your co-founder.
Rob: Yeah, I think you’re dead on with that. Look at the operating agreement. Typically, it says other founders have the first right of refusal. If you get an offer, they have to match that, that kind of stuff. To me, there’s a lot of ways you could go, but I feel there’s three options. One, you could just sell the whole business and, as you said Jeff, that might take six months or a year to do. You lose the asset, but you get cash and then you know what fair market value is. There’s no quibbling over it. You’d run a profitable process. By the way, Nick, if you want to do that, ping me back. I know some people who do things like that for $1 million ARR SaaS companies. They run a full process and get good revenue multiples for them.
The other option that I think about is like you said, Jeff, an earn-out. Have someone assess it or try to get some offers and then use that as the assessed value, in essence, and then try to buy him out over time. Let’s just say, $2 million is what we value the business at. You owe him $1 million. You’re not going to pay him that today unless you have that in the bank, but can you pay him $100,000 a quarter for the next 10 quarters or something? I have seen that done not often, but I have seen it done with some tech businesses in the past.
The other option I think about is—it may sound complicated—finding someone to just buy his share. Again, you need to try to look for market or assessed value, he owns X percent, then you try to find someone that you would be willing to work with, whether they are a silent partner (or not) but they buy in and then as you take dividends out, they also are able to participate in that.
I think off the top of my head, those are the three options I’d be looking at. Of course, each of them comes with different timelines and different complexities. Do you have any other thoughts?
Jeff: I think those are great, great options and a really good summary of what Nick can probably do, to be honest.
Rob: Nick has another question about the app. “Obviously, it’s a three-year old B2B app, it’s generating $1 million in ARR with 15 enterprise customers. It’s a small customer base. It’s also a simple but important problem for insurance companies. With 12–18 months sales cycles, we are growing slowly but steadily in our niche market and have three developers. Thus far, we have been customer-led, relying on customer development to identify and prioritize features.
However, with our 10th release, things have slowed down. The app is stabilizing, support tickets have dropped off, feature request are drying up. We hold a user forum twice a year and then deliver the most requested items in our last release. We tried tabling some more radical ideas at our last meet-up, but the feedback from several power users was that we shouldn’t mess with it and to keep things simple. Is there such a state as having enough features? How do we know what to build next? Should we refocus on technical debt? As ever, your thoughts are appreciated.” What do you think?
Jeff: I do thing there are probably times when it makes sense to focus on technical debt. Then, it may not be time to just add more features. I think that makes sense. I don’t know if that’s a constancy. I think there can be points in time. Saying that the business is, tickets are slow, or things like that. To me, running a business is a fluid situation and it’s always changing.
I wouldn’t suggest a full stop. Perhaps it’s time to think about some ways that you can grow the business, but it also comes down to what you want to do from a business perspective. You could add features that allow you to find a new customer segment or you can say, “Hey, we just want to deliver the product faster and essentially get rid of some of this technical debt.” I think that’s a decision that, as a business owner, you have to make.
There’s no right or wrong answer. It really just depends on what your goals are. Having no more requirements, so to speak, from customers is typically a pretty good thing, but again, I don’t know your background and how you started the business. There are many cases where businesses are started or features are added that not suggest by the users per se. There are some things that the users don’t know can exist, or should exist, or does exist. I think it’s a good position to be in and I congratulate you on getting to that point. That’s pretty rare even for a brief time.
Rob: Yeah, I would agree with that. It feels to me every software product, every tech product has a life cycle. When you first build it, there’s not enough features, it’s clunky, then it gets to product maturity, and then eventually it gets to where it sunsets, where it’s just too old, 20-, 30-, 40-year old code bases, while I know they still run—a lot of the IRS and our social security system here in the US and probably in many countries around the world.
I’m guessing most SaaS apps aren’t going to make it that long. The code base is either going to go clunk, or the market’s going to change so dramatically, or there will be an entirely new form of servicing those needs.
With that in mind, it sounds like there is a chance. Three years is fast. Typically, I would expect it to be 10 or 15 years. I think of a tool like FogBugz or Basecamp. When you’re around a SaaS app that’s around 10 or 15 years, you do eventually hit a point where, “Huh, we don’t necessarily need new features, but our UX paradigms are 5 or 10 years old.” So, you need to revamp that. You have UX technical debt, in essence, or UX debt, or just technical debt. If it were built in classical ASP or PHP 1.0 or something, you would want to go back and refactor those. Given the code base is only three years old, it’s unusual but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
I think I’m in the same boat as you, Jeff. There’s a couple of things I would think about. One, you could focus on technical debt now while you figure out what you vision for the product is. What is it that you can build that they’re not asking for? Oftentimes, it’s a mix of customer requests, internal employee requests, and founder vision or CEO vision. Those are the three things that I have most often built into a product.
Do you have a vision for something else? If not, then yeah, why not technical debt? Or why not put more funds into either marketing or sales? I know there’s long sales cycles, but can you double or triple the number of conversations you’re having such that someone’s closing every three months instead of every six months if you double that?
I don’t think it’s a bad thing to take a little break and maybe give the team time to go back and circle up. It will become obvious when you need to add more features because customers will be asking for it or there will be a competitor that you see doing something this is starting to take your customers or at least a competitor that’s getting ahead of you. That’s the time where you start thinking about heading back to features.
Jeff: I actually have one more thing that I was thinking about. I think you do have an opportunity to also ask your customers and it depends on the question you’re asking, If it’s, “What else do you want, maybe?” They say nothing. But if you ask it or you frame it as, “What else are you paying for?” or, “What else are you doing?” or, “Why else would you pay for, perhaps?” Maybe there are some different answers there or maybe it’s the way that you’re gathering feedback that you can just tweak it a little bit. Maybe get some insights from customers, of things that are maybe closely related, things that you could build that would immediately paid for so that they could pay for the development itself.
Rob: Nice. Thanks again for those questions, Nick. Our next question comes from Evan and he’s asking about a single-use niche product. He says, “First time caller, long-time listener. Honestly, I love listening to you, guys. Here’s my question. I built a script for a company I worked for, realized how much other people could use it, and then in my spare time, I refactored the idea and turned it into an enterprise product. I’ve been officially launched for almost two months. I’ve done just under $6000 in revenue, and 98% of that is profit,” which I would expect you probably have no expenses aside from hosting or something.
“The problem is that this is a single-use product that I’ve essentially built to use when people are migrating to another software package. It’s really not worth the plug because it’s so niche,” he says. “Anyway, I’m really trying to figure out how much time I should be putting into this thing.” So, is a migration tool to software company X. “Software company X could just roll out their own migration tool and kill my revenue overnight. However, they played pretty nice, thus far, and they featured my product in quite a few support articles and have started to build it into their support flow for when they get tickets regarding the problem.
Would you recommend continuing to make this product better and attempt to figure out how I could possibly get recurring revenue? Or just take it for what it is, single-use product that does what it does, and that is right now the only tool out there that does this? $6000 in almost two months isn’t a ton of money. I make decent money at my full-time job as a software developer, but it is a pretty nice supplemental income.” That’s our question, Jeff. What do you think?
Jeff: To me it seems like this is great. Sometimes, people may overanalyze what’s going on. To me, this sounds pretty straightforward. It seems like he solved a really great problem with something that was pretty simple, and it’s a single-use product that probably is a problem that this company is facing, and it doesn’t make sense for them to really spend any time or money on it, so they’re more than happy to find a solution that does the job for their customers. As long as you’re not bragging about how much money you’re making to the world and it doesn’t seem like it’s enough for the company would want to build this, to me it seems like a really awesome revenue stream that you have for the foreseeable future.
That being said, there’s very little context in terms of what it can do or how you could turn this into a recurring business. I would say that I wouldn’t over-engineer it or overthink it. I would just capitalize on what you can earn. Throw a little bit of money in the marketing and see if you can attract more people to want to use this. I think this is awesome. I don’t know what you think, Rob, but to me I think it’s pretty straightforward. It doesn’t seem there’s much there to do a company unless you want a really start building other features and tools around that. I don’t know what it is, to be honest, without all the context.
Rob: I agree with you. What a fortuitous thing you stumbled into. That’s cool. $3000 a month, while you say it’s not a lot of money, if you’re working full-time it sure wouldn’t be, but that makes most people’s house payment. It’s step one of the stairstep approach, to be honest.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Stairstep Approach to Bootstrapping, it’s something I laid out in a talk at Dynamite Circle five years ago now and then I blogged about it. Basically, don’t go for SaaS right away. Don’t go for recurring revenue. It’s too hard, too complicated, takes a long time, just all these things are against you. But, if you find a niche and you can build a WordPress plugin or another one-time use thing like this import tool, or a Shopify app, or whatever it is, find something where there’s a single sales channel and it’s going to plateau.
I did this with DotNetInvoice where it was like, “Hey, it’s a downloadable software, I’ve got $300 a pop for it.” Really, there were some SEO and AdWords, but that was about it. The market was not huge for it and this sounds very similar. So, now you have this opportunity to then take that and parlay it up into something bigger, if you want. You could potentially build on this. It doesn’t sound like you have direct ideas on how to do that, but I don’t think this needs to become your big thing. This can become $36,000 a year going into a bank account that you then use to buy a bigger app. Or, this becomes learning.
Have you learned how to do copywriting, toyed around with LinkedIn and Google AdWords? Have you ever done that before? Because now’s your chance to learn on a real product that has enough budget you could play with and not worry about chewing through your paycheck. I see this as an opportunity to stairstep if you do eventually want to get to recurring. I keep saying, doing things in public creates opportunity. This is something you’ve done in public and you never know what the next customer’s going to ask for, that brings a life of like, “Oh wow, that would be a crazy thing I could add to this that would double the value or that would make it recurring.”
I think this is all upside, personally, and frankly longer term, maybe wind up selling it to company X. It’s a migration tool for them, so why wouldn’t they? If you were like, “Hey, I’m just going to shut this thing down.” In their shoes, I would buy the thing from you. If it’s only doing $36,000 a year, maybe your exit is for $100,000 or $150,000 or something. Still, it’s worth something.
I feel like you’ve gotten further than so many software entrepreneurs or aspirin entrepreneurs ever get. So, I think you’re in a great place and have a really pretty cool resource that you can now use to parlay up that stairstep and maybe eventually buy out your own time and then get into recurring revenue as well.
Jeff: Love it. It’s all profit, almost. It really is amazing. I wouldn’t sell yourself short at all. It might not be the idea but like what was said, parlay that into something bigger if you want. I think having flexibility and optionality is huge. Reading the question again, I don’t know if it’s something that you don’t quit your job over, but keep milking it and see where it goes.
Rob: Yeah. Me from 20 years ago, I would have killed to own a software product that did $3000 a month in net profit. That was my goal. First, it was like, “I just want to make my car payment, making money on the Internet.” Then it was like, “I just want to make my house payment.” And then it was like, “I just want to cover my salary so I could quit my job.” This is an envious position, so hope these thoughts are helpful.
Our last question of the day comes from Will and he says, “Hey, guys. I’ve been mowing some stuff over for a bit and I’ve noticed something. The more I do my own projects on the side for money, the more I feel like I’m not as good of an employee. That doesn’t mean I don’t work hard and deliver, but I’ve noticed that after a certain point, I really had to fight the desire to rock the boat at my day job. For instance, I notice stuff like the following,” and he has a list.
“Companies using large numbers of developer hours to avoid having to pay $20 a month for a tool. Companies building their own internal tools when extremely cheap options exists like time trackers. Companies having really broken internal processes that would completely destroy a startup but they chug along on momentum.” This must be a non-startup like bigger companies. “Companies having highly technical products that are sold by people who don’t understand what the technology does. Companies having no idea what their sales funnel looks like. What the customer lifetime value is, et cetera.
I guess what I’m saying is that the process of going entrepreneurial has forced me to re-examine the things that made me a good employee, only to find that a lot of them don’t really suit where I’m headed. I usually don’t mention these things when I notice them as a developer, because people don’t really like devs jumping in on this stuff, but they bug me a lot.
Did either of you undergo a similar epiphany at some point? If you did, what were the main things you had to unlearn as part of making the transition to your own products? I think it’s easy to become a little too domesticated inside the walls of a cubicle and I’m wondering what else I should be doing to try to avoid that?” That is an interesting question. What do you think, Jeff?
Jeff: I love this question because it’s something that I’ve seen quite a bit. I’m going to get on my soapbox for a minute. There’s a couple of things to unpack here. I love the self-awareness and I think for many companies—it obviously depends—culturally, you should find yourself and hope to find yourself a company that wants to improve, first and foremost. If that’s the case, then pointing out things that can be better isn’t rocking the boat. It’s doing your job and the mindset that you’re “rocking the boat” hopefully isn’t correct.
That said, there’s a way to do these things. Even just reading this, it looks like a lot of things are black and white, and what I always used to say to the engineering team is I know a lot of time writing code in an engineering mindset tends to be black and white, but business is really shades of gray. There are probably dozens of factors you’re not considering from a sales funnel perspective, especially not being in the sales team or the way the company spends money.
What I would suggest is I would find an outlet to say, “Hey, I have some things that I’ve noticed that could help the business.” Someone in the company should say that’s important enough to listen to, but I wouldn’t just assume that you’re right or that you have all the information.
A lot of times, there are plenty of things that we did from a business perspective—again, we’re much smaller—that many people thought was the absolute opposite thing that you should be doing, but many times, if you explain to them why—one of our cultural values was understand why—then they’re like, “Oh, I never ever thought about that,” and, “Yeah, that’s okay. I didn’t expect you to think about it, but that’s why we’re doing this.”
I think it creates a lot of challenges inside companies when we use to say we don’t want know-it-alls in the organization. Be curious to understand why and then be helpful. Anyone in the company is going to want to save money or know that things can be done differently, but sometimes again there’s red tape and other reasons why things can’t get done the minute that it makes sense for someone.
Rob: I think your advice is better than what I was going to say. I was going to go from my own experience. Yours is from your own experiences as well but…
Jeff: Mine must be right.
Rob: Yeah, but yours is from the company side and I think that’s a really good point. Don’t assume that you’re right; that’s really good advice. I was going to say, as an employee, as I became entrepreneurial, I absolutely had the exact same thing. It wasn’t with sales and everything, but I became more and more disgruntled and frustrated with development, them hiring crappy developers we had to work with, the code was buggy, they wouldn’t let us go refactor. This was, let’s say, 2003–2006.
I got so annoyed that I would quit jobs over not feeling fulfilled. It wasn’t just like, “Oh, I’m building dumb software,” because I was fine to build this software I didn’t care about, but the processes were broken and no one would fix them.
What I did was left and I started consulting because then I get to control and processes or I would go find another job where the processes weren’t broken. I am a little bit broad here, but if you don’t like to see those things you’re seeing, then don’t work it like a Fortune 5000 company. Go work for a startup, go work for a small company. They all haven’t figured it out, but smaller teams have less dysfunction, in general. There’s less politics, there’s less of all the broken stuff, and frankly there’s more of a mindset of, “Let’s fix this stuff.” There’s less inertia and there’s less, “We do it this way because we’ve always done it this way,” and there’s more, “Let’s try to get better.”
Again, I’m generalizing, but that’s if I were in your shoes and you can Jeff’s advice, which I think is great, or you could take mine, or you could take Jeff’s and then take mine if it doesn’t turn out well. This is what we’re doing, Jeff. We’re getting people to quit their jobs.
Jeff: No, I actually think the advice is complementary, too. I think that makes a lot of sense. Really, the first part of what I said is you should find a cultural fit and that’s the challenge. And you also should remember the trade-offs. A stodgy, slow-moving company probably is just inherently more stable, if you look out 5 years and maybe not 50 years. You may make more money there or may have more benefits there. Those are personal trade-offs that you have to make.
Listen, if you want everything done exactly your way, there’s only one way to do that and that’s to start a company. But let me tell you, very soon after you start it, it won’t be your way anymore once you have other people to answer to, whether it’s investors and employees. That’s just the reality. If you want something on your own, you are going to have to do a side project.
But I totally agree with Rob. Set yourself up for success in terms of aligning with how the company’s going to work. Again, these are questions that ideally you’re finding out in the interview process so don’t want to be surprised when you start. So, do your diligence and find out, especially if you’re a developer, you have a lot of options for places to work. The lowest employment in a long time and everyone’s looking for technical talent, so you’re in a good position.
Again, I wouldn’t shy away from or train yourself away from speaking up, but I think there’s a time and a place. Don’t complain in front of the whole team. That’s not the way to get it done. Privately message someone who can help or say, “Who can I speak to about these things? I love to make some things better.” At some point in your organization, someone is going to raise their hand and say, “We should listen or we should take this into consideration.” Again, that’s my two cents.
Rob: That’s good. I had this personal adage, I don’t know if I ever written about it or said it. I’m sure I swiped it from a business book or something. It’s to say or do positive things in public and negative things in private. If you’re going to reward or congratulate someone on a good job, do that in public so that everyone knows. If you’re going to tell someone that they’re screwing up on the job, do that in private.
That’s actually one of the reasons I have such an issue with Twitter, to be honest, is there is so much open public negativity and it’s like, “Why didn’t you just email me?” in a lot of times. They’ll be someone you know and they’re complaining about you, or your company, or something you did, and you’re just like, “Dude, just email me. We can talk about this. (a) I would fix it, (b) I didn’t know what was going on. Why do you have to yell at the top of your lungs from your rooftop, telling everyone I screwed up?”
I think this is a good case of that and the reason I started saying that is because you brought up, don’t braze these things in a big public meeting with 8 or 10 people. It’s bad form, it’s rude, and I would not be happy with that. So, set up a one-on-one or a one-on-two with supervisors who are mature and can handle this kind of stuff.
Jeff: One thing to add—I don’t know if it’s helpful—I found the people that wanted to help the business in a positive way are the best employees, but on the flip side, the people that complain publicly are always the worst employees. It’s a really fine line. They both arguably wanted to help, but the people that are like, “This is wrong,” or, “This is bad.”
Again, it’s so frustrating just to think about some of those situations where people are like, even after they left they would maybe blast or post something like, “Hey, you can’t do these things. You can’t do this.” You don’t need to talk at 40 people publicly at lunch how something’s wrong when it’s a minor thing that can be addressed in five minutes.
Rob: Yeah. Negativity is toxic and it spreads, right?
Jeff: For sure.
Rob: Well, thanks again, man. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Jeff: Of course, yeah. My pleasure.
Rob: And if folks want to catch up with you, you’re @jeff_epstein on Twitter.
Jeff: Awesome. Thanks, Rob.
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