Forrest Blount

Bootstrapping in the Boston Metro

What Lean in Said to Me

I’m not prone to book reviews, but ever since I finished Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In a few weeks ago I’ve been meaning to write a public recommendation.

Did the book change my life? No. It hasn’t changed how I manage work/life balance or how I negotiate my relationship. But it raised three issues in such a refreshing manner that I have to recommend it.

1) Go Faster

Sandberg’s voice is incredibly refreshing as she discusses the pros and cons of the difficult decisions she’s faced. Where many business books focus on winning and how to get there, Sandberg takes her time and shares her uncertainty in a way I found courageous. She also offers a wonderful compass when weighing difficult choices – choose the opportunity that offers the largest and fastest opportunities for growth.

2) Constantly Improve

How does the COO of Facebook consistently improve herself? She and Zuckerberg meet weekly for candid discussions about what they could be doing better. This is a simple and brilliant idea that now myself and my co-founder are doing ourselves.

3) Know Your Bias

There is so much research on gender discrimination and I’ve read some of it before, but Sandberg brings it up in an informative and non-threatening way. By framing all that businesses and managers have to gain by adjusting their processes to find gender-balanced approaches, Sandbergs done something no other feminist work has achieved: moved me to change my day to day practices.

In short, go read Lean In . I’ll look forward to discussing it further when you do.

The Debt We Owe Each Other

The events in Boston this week shook me to the core. After the shock, the horror, the distraction, after the restless nights, the chopper flyovers, the messages received from old friends and distant connections, three thoughts are still with me today:

  • Life is too short to do anything less than your best. Every day. You owe it to the world.
  • We are each the most powerful instruments of creativity and destruction we will ever encounter and we are only as strong (as a people) as the weakest among us.
  • I love this city.

Nothing has been more awe-inspiring and humbling than seeing so many come together in the face of this tragedy - I hope that in the coming months and years we remember that we are at our best when we come together - when we aid those weaker than ourselves and enable them to be their best. Be courageous. Be selfless. Be bold.

And remember Boston.

The Importance of Specificity

Non-specific-action-figure

When you’ve decided that you want a change in your life – whether looking for a new job, making a lifestyle change (diet/exercise), or undertaking some other new adventure, I’ve always found it to be tremendously valuable to be specific. Let me try to be more specific ;)

Instead of letting yourself focus on the long term goal, for example, “get a job in marketing”, push yourself to dig deeper. What are the characteristics of a company you want to work for? What does the team you want to work on look like? What responsibilities are included in your day to day? 

By being more specific you give yourself a tremendous advantage – the ability to recognize opportunities and articulate benefits quickly. Instead of having a mediocre interview trying to fit in to a place that doesn’t fit your specific vision, you can turn it into an opportunity to seek referrals to other companies hiring. Because you’re able to articulate why this combination of culture, team and skills suits you, when you find the right position, you can quickly explain not just what you’ll provide to the company (something everyone tried to do in an interview) but also what you stand to benefit from working for this company in this role. When someone sees that you care about what they’re doing specifically, more than the generic title, role or salary that come with the job, they’ll recognize the additional value you’re bringing to the table.

BTW, if you know someone looking to get into social media marketing for startups, let me know. I may know a company that’s looking ;)

Every Day a New Beginning

I spent the end of the year refocusing. What questions are worth pursuing? Where are my talents uniquely suited? In the face of so many opportunities, finding a sense or purpose and direction becomes immensely important. How will I orient myself for the coming weeks, months, years?

I recalibrated my compass with a freewriting exercise. These are some excerpts:

What will you do to change the world in 2013?

You have been pressed into service. Serve your community. Ask yourself: who will be best served by my talents today?

Focus on the path. Make manifest the world as you have only dared to dream it.

2012 was a year of reminders for me. The biggest: you can’t take it with you. Find the ones you love. Say it. Mean it. 

I’ll be writing more in the coming weeks. I won’t be any less busy, but hope I can do a better job sharing what I’m working on and learning going forward.

Foresight

How far into the future can you see?

In a world where only some people make two year plans and fewer plan on a five year horizon, how much of an advantage do you have when you plan your life on a 7, 10, or 20 year scale? I heard Peter Thiel speak at HBS a few weeks ago and he said (to paraphrase) that life starts to get very interesting when you cultivate a twenty year vision for yourself. What he said made a lot of sense to me.

I’ve been proud of my own 2-5 year goals for quite some time, pleased as I was able to check off the mental boxes as I progressed. A two year goal is relatively easy to keep your focus on, easy to articulate to friends, your significant other, easy to quantify when you achieve it. Other goals might be just as easy going, at least, if they don’t challenge the circumstances of your reality.

Put another way, a 2-5 year goal is likely to sound something like:

- increase my net worth X % or to Y level

- move up the corporate ladder at work

- move in with, get married to your spouse

- buy a car, condo, house, etc

What does a 20 year goal look like? On a horizon segmented by 5 or 10 year goals, it becomes clear whether these smaller steps are actually taking you where you want to go. It becomes clear whether the job you’re considering, the relationship you’re pursuing or the purchase you’ve been saving for will actually move you in the right direction. It becomes clear whether you’re shaping the life you want to look back on.

The most alarming part of all this is how much more difficult it is to remain focused on a clear and coherent 20 year plan. I’ve taken to allocating some time each week to re-center and consider my 20 year goals and ponder the world that I think will emerge as we approach that horizon.

What do you want the great achievements of your life to be?

If you’re interested, This is a great post on the same talk, by Alex Taussig.

 

Less Money, Less Problems?

I sat down four weeks ago to get back into blogging and I’m just now managing to wrap this up. I know there’s no way around sounding naive and inexperienced when I say it, but I haven’t worked this hard in years.

It feels wonderful.

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I’m setting out on a new adventure today, hijacking this blog and taking it with me. Up to this point I’ve been writing about the perils and pitfalls of hiring as I researched and built a new tool to help match potential employees and employers based on a “culture profile.” This was all brought to an end roughly five months ago when Google’s acquisition of ITA Software closed. Instead of jumping ship post acquisition, I decided to stay on and see what life in Google was really like and whether I would be swept up in a froth of technology and innovation.

After 5 months, it was safe to say that my situation wasn’t… well, frothy enough.

I’d been working for ITA Software for nearly 5 years, ITA Software by Google for nearly 5 months, had a flexible schedule, great co-workers, autonomy in my work, etc, etc– by almost every metric I could think of, my life had improved so dramatically over the last 5 years that I should be ecstatic. But I wasn’t.

What did I want? What would it take to be excited about my work? I read this article and decided to follow the exercise. Here’s what matters to me:

  • Learning. I absolutely love learning new things and figuring out new approaches to problems. I need to have a job that involves learning new things regularly and not just rehashing the same process/skills time and time again.
  • Dynamic projects. One of the best parts of my time at ITA was the shear number of roles I got to play.
  • Reach. Work that matters. To lots of people. Work that will change people’s lives for the better.

With this knowledge in hand I started exploring my options. In April, I made a checklist of all the reasons Hire Measure wasn’t ready for my full time commitment and Co-Founders were at the top. Looking at startups to join, I was a looking for a team I could see myself working with for years and an idea with big potential. When I was put in touch with the team at Acceptional I got excited, and it’s not hard to see why: 

Team: The team behind Acceptional is first rate. Whatever happens with the business, this is a team that I will learn from, grow with and I’m confident we’ll achieve great things together.

Mission: Acceptional wants to level the playing field for college admissions. Today you can spend $1-5k on counselors, advisors and test prep to get you child through the admissions process. Many of those who can afford to are comfortable spending this money, because they view college as an investment so an additional $5k (when compared to $200k+ over 4 years of tuition) is a no brainer. For everyone who doesn’t have an additional $5k sitting around or aren’t sure about their college prospects (and certainly aren’t ready to think about $200k in tuition over four years), good news – We’re building the tools that will take you through this process as quickly, easily and most importantly, affordably as possible.

Four weeks in I can safely say that while the inverse of the common saying “More money, more problems” isn’t true, I can say I have more energy, focus, confidence (and yes more work too) than I have in years. I feel rejuvenated. I feel younger. I feel like I should have done this a long time ago.

Check out our current site at Acceptional.com– I’d love to hear your thoughts on the site. We’re right around the corner from admissions season so every bit counts.

 

The B Filter: Is Your New a Player Really a B Player in Hiding?

You’ve just found the perfect candidate for the position that’s been sitting open on your team for 6 months.  Their resume looked good enough, their phone screen raised no red flags, and now they’ve won you over after completing your interview process.  Congratulations!  Well, almost congratulations.

 

While navigating the open waters of candidate search and landing this prize catch clears your open req and leaves you free to focus on building your product, if you really want to build a great team and can’t afford to settle for merely a good one, your work is far from over.  Here are a few of my favorite approaches.

 

If it’s at all possible, ask them to solve a current problem on your plate. The goal here isn’t to get the right answer for your business per se, but rather to assess how the candidate thinks and if they’re able to bring any new insights to your team. If you can’t ask them how they’d approach a current problem, consider using one your team has already tackled.

 

Ask them how they know they’ve done a good job. You’re not trying to ask a trick question, so be aware that’s how it may come across. You’re trying to ascertain how this candidate judges their work. There’s no right answer to this question, but it should reveal whether they put more stock in their assessment of quality or that of their coworkers or manager. As a follow-up question, ask them how they know if someone else does a good job (hint: often we apply different criteria to ourselves than our peers). Again, there’s no right or wrong answers here, but these questions should be able to help you filter out the A players for your role from the B players fronting.

 

Lastly, there’s no excuse, you have to do the work. Invite the candidate to work with you, either on a short term project or with a clearly defined probationary period. In either case set clear goals and benchmarks for what will be acceptable performance. Here’s the rub: if you don’t set A player benchmarks here, you won’t catch the B and C players who’ve made it this far. Set your expectations high. If the candidate is an A player they’ll crush it and even if they don’t meet your benchmarks, you’ll know you don’t want to let them go.

 

Remember, A players hire A players. Make sure you’re doing the A player work required to hire them.

 

What are your favorite filtering techniques?  Are there methods unique to your industry that have high success rates?  I’d love to hear from your hiring experience!

 

Happiness, Incorporated

Do you love your job? Do your employees? Co-workers? Friends? Do you understand why? ======================================================================================== I consumed Tony Hsieh’s ”Delivering Happiness” a little more than a week ago and I’ve spent the time since digesting. It isn’t that the book is particularly dense, but rather that Hsieh works around an idea I find too important, too compelling to disengage from: we should be happy. Happy with our jobs, with our friends, and with our lives. But why should your employer be actively involved in this discussion? I shared one of Dan Pink’s videos awhile ago. Pink believes that “Autonomy, Master & Purpose” are the three cornerstones for motivation in a knowledge based economy (read more on this in Pink’s ”Drive”). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studies optimal experiences. In his work ”Flow” he ties happiness and overall life satisfaction to our ability to experience these creative and deeply involved moments in our lives. In short, your business can’t afford not to care about your happiness. Hsieh raises other excellent points as well. He advocates for corporate culture, not merely as an extension of your corporate brand, but as the brand itself. Who you hire and how they interact with your employees, vendors and customers creates a brand far more permanent and meaningful than any commercial campaign. AT&T can advertise as many devices, satisfied customers and coverage maps as they like– anyone who has called and had to work through their technical support process receives a completely different message, one that is far more personal and compelling, I might add. (AT&T, I’m still waiting for you to move my upgrade eligibility date forward, as you’ve done for everyone else I know who purchased an iPhone 3GS on launch day last year). I digress. Hsieh doesn’t claim to have all the answers. The process that’s worked so well at Zappos has evolved over a decade and can’t be transplanted to other organizations. But some of their great ideas can. Do you provide classes for your employees on site? Actively solicit employee feedback on company culture? Do you protect your culture throughout your recruiting and application processes? Do you offer to pay new employees thousands of dollars to walk away, no questions asked? At the end of the day, the rewards to pursuing happiness in business, as in life, are numerous. For Hsieh, the biggest reward is still having a job that he loves. If Zappos has successfully created a culture that can keep Hsieh and other early Zappos employees happy and engaged even after their Amazon acquisition, doesn’t that say more about these theories than even the $1.2B Zappos purchase price? _What ways do you promote and protect your corporate culture? Who are your most valuable employees or co-workers– are they happy?_

Hiring: 1-Up Your Gut

Brad Feld wrote an interesting post for VentueBeat yesterday about a hiring method he’s found useful in understanding the true nature of a candidate. He calls it the Crowd Navigation Method. In essence, you take a candidate on a walk through a crowded area and see how they navigate the crowd. Their demeanor can give you insight into how they’ll approach their role at your organization.

These kind of behavioral indicators are fascinating and certainly worth noting when spending time with a candidate, but I’d like to discuss some of the finer points Brad glossed over.

First, behavioral indicators aren’t mysterious. In fact, scientists have been researching them for decades and we know a great deal about how and when to effectively measure candidates. One thing we’ve learned is that the context of a given experience is crucially important when assessing behavioral factors. For example, an individual who darts through the crowd might be shy when introduced to new business connections (or order the “safe” dish at a new restaurant); the two behaviors don’t correlate because the individual perceives the two contexts differently. It could be that the context people experience when navigating crowds is similar to the workplace, but that doesn’t resonate with my experience.

So, while hiring with your gut is tremendously important (I would never encourage anyone, least of all the founder of a startup to hire someone against their gut), I would recommend that you use your gut to validate what the rest of your hiring process tells you. If you don’t have a hiring process sketched out, invest some time in building one suited to your organization or borrow one from the pros. True, candidates can game your questions, but books like Brad Smart’s ”Topgrading” and Shelle Charvet’s ”Words that Change Minds” give you tools that will help you determine what your candidates real capabilities are and how well they’ll fit with your organization.

If I haven’t convinced you you need a hiring process sketched out, on paper, consider the following: A bad hire will cost you more in missed opportunities than it will in salary, productivity and severance (when it comes to it) all combined, so you should invest the time in hiring right. The total cost of mis-hiring a mid-level $100k/year manager is more than $1M, so think of this time and effort as an investment that will repay itself in spades.

Behavioral science doesn’t have all the answers, but neither does your gut; most managers don’t hire A candidates (the top 10% of the pool for the price) even 20% of the time. I’m not saying you should employ the entire Topgrading interview, but I do think you can 1-up your gut.

The Phone Screen

A friend of mine was talking today about the process she’s been going through to hire a direct report.  As she talked about the phone screen process she’s just been through, I realized there’s a huge variation in what managers understand about the hiring process.  That really shouldn’t be that surprising as most managers don’t hire very often so they don’t get much practice.  Brad Smart put’s most manager’s ability to hire A candidates at just 20% in Topgrading.

Many organizations use phone screens to ascertain basic information to filter out some candidates.  Criminal background, prior places of employment and other cursory topics may be discussed.  What I think most organizations under utilize is the ability of the phone screen to begin the valuable and oft overlooked culture fit evaluation.

I won’t use this entry to convince you of the benefits of culture fit, but rather focus on the benefits of beginning the process with the first phone screen.  Think about the last time you went on a blind date.  How did you choose a neutral location to meet?  What did you talk about over dinner?

Now imagine you had the chance to call your date before deciding when and where to meet up.  You got to know what kind of food they like, what neighborhoods they prefer, and even when they prefer to eat.  This is the kind of information which seems trivial, but actually has tremendous value and impact on the long term nature of your relationship.

It’s also exactly the kind of information you can start to get during a phone screen.

Try incorporating the following questions:
- What are you working on today?
- What are your best working hours?
- Do you prefer one on one or team based interviews?

Like a date, once a candidate and hiring manager are in an interview together, they’re both trying to impress the other.  If either is underwhelmed, further advances will be rebuffed.  Lastly, just like a date, if you can identify not just the right skills but also the right personality, you can find a partner who will make you and the rest of your team shine.

What are your favorite phone screen questions?