Resignation

A few weeks ago I resigned. I drafted the email, proofread it, and sent it in. It was pretty standard – I thanked the company for the opportunity, mentioned I was proud of what we’d achieved together, and wished them well.

No, I didn’t resign from Administrate – I resigned from my post as a Non-Executive Director (sometimes abbreviated NED, sometimes NXD) on the board of Snap40, one of Scotland’s most promising startups.

I love helping out startups, mainly because I’ve received so much help myself over the years from others. I know first hand how hard it is growing a company, and some of the advice, time, and mentorship I’ve received has come at critical points along the journey.

Just over a year ago I was asked to join the board at Snap40, and while initially surprised that I was asked and skeptical of the company, I was ultimately impressed with the market, product, vision, and team. I thought I could learn a lot as well! But before I agreed to join, I made it clear that I would resign every year, and the company could either accept or reject my resignation.

Why?

In a fast growing startup, particularly when things are at an early stage, the type of advice and support a company and CEO requires changes quickly, just like everything else. I’ve seen other founders struggle with the awkwardness of how to ask board members and advisors to step aside when they no longer had anything to add, and it was important to me to demonstrate that I viewed my appointment to the board as a fixed term, renewable every year. If the resignation is accepted, no problem! If not, I’m here for at least another year (unless I need to be replaced before then).

I’d encourage other startup CEOs and board members to consider this model for board and advisor appointments. In my view, it’s important that the board members resign proactively as it demonstrates a willingness to step back and acknowledge that their time has potentially come to an end. Nobody likes to think that they’ve been outgrown, but it’s a fact of life, so lets not ignore it.

As for me? My resignation from Snap40 this year was rejected. I’m really excited about the company, the team, and the progress we’re making. I’ve learned a lot already and can’t wait to see what this coming year holds.

Now it’s back to work!

The Problem of Homelessness

Like most people, I used to have very little interaction with the homeless.  I’d see them every now and then on a street corner, or sometimes sleeping sheltered against a doorway if I was out early in the morning or late at night, but that was about it.

A couple years ago I started helping out with an operation that provides a meal for the homeless once a week, run by a local church here in Edinburgh.  They do a fantastic job of providing a really good meal in a nice, warm, safe setting, and the thing I like most about it is they encourage their members to bring their families and attend and eat alongside the guests.  It leads to some really interesting situations where you’re never really sure who is homeless and who isn’t, and it’s a dynamic that I really enjoy.  It’s non threatening and they don’t evangelize, they’re just providing a community and a meal.

One of the things I learned through this experience is that the edge is often very fine – many of us are just a lost job, divorce, or mistake away from being out on the streets, and once that happens, it can be very difficult to get back into normal life.  Another thing I learned is that most of these people are invisible.  I see them a lot on the streets of Edinburgh, and they look like you or me.  It’s quite nice seeing a guest and stopping for a quick chat, even if sometimes it takes a few tries calling their name because they’re not used to being spoken to while walking around.  While the safety net in Scotland is fantastic, particularly when compared to America, there are still people who fall through and there are an estimated 35,000 homeless here.  Often they’re afraid of something, running from something, or have mental health issues.  Providing these people a way out is difficult, and that’s why we’ve been proud to support SocialBite for several years at Administrate – they often provide our weekly team lunch, lunch for our board meetings, and have catered various events for us, and they do so staffed mostly by the formerly homeless.

This year, I’m choosing to join a couple hundred other business leaders to sleep outside for one night in December in support of those of us who often have no choice.  Money raised will go towards the construction of homes for those who have none.  If you’d like to donate to this effort you can do so here, and you can read a bit more about this over on the blog at Administrate.

Thanks!

 

 

Do Not Buy a Bike From Canyon

Don't buy a Canyon bike!

Hopefully this will save some time for cyclists who are considering buying a bike from Canyon. Do not, under any circumstances, buy a bike from Canyon!

Back in 2012, myself and a friend both bought entry level Canyon aluminium road bikes.  The ordering process was mostly smooth, although they did make a mistake on my friend’s order which was quickly rectified, to their credit.  I’ve ridden more than 3,000 miles on my Canyon since then, and it’s a great bike which I feel had fantastic value.  I’ve been asked numerous times about the bike and company, with most cyclists being understandably nervous about the mail-order-only way that they fulfil their orders, and in all cases I’ve been positive.

Positive that is, until I ordered a second bike (mountain bike) from them, back in May.

At the time of ordering, the website was saying it could take up to three weeks to ship.  That was fine as I had some travel coming up, so I placed the order.  Months later, the bike still hadn’t shipped, with no word at all, and here is the ultimate reason to not buy a Canyon.

The company combines the worst elements of German and British customer support.

Their customer support:

  1. Is only available 9-5, Monday to Friday.
  2. There is no ability to check on the status of your order, or even see your order on the website.
  3. They offer an online chat facility, but they employ robotic agents who do not care about the problem and seem to be instructed to lie about anything in order to get you to go away.
  4. They charged my credit card immediately upon placing the order, then claimed they never do that, then said they had proof (they didn’t), when they had absolutely taken the money.
  5. They were unable to give me an estimated shipment date, and made vague reference to a missing part, and it was only after I asked why I hadn’t been told the reason behind all the delays that I received a canned email that looks to have been sent to what I can only assume are hundreds of other customers who are waiting for their purchases.
  6. I was finally (after I demanded to speak to a supervisor) offered 48GBP off my order (shipping fees, essentially).
  7. However, I had ordered a Canyon T-Shirt and no longer felt like supporting the brand.  When I asked for the T-Shirt to either be made free or removed due to this reason, they removed it, then put the 48GBP charge back on.
  8. The only way to refund the 48GBP was to give them bank details via an insecure email.  A call was refused.
  9. Then, after I complained on Twitter, a call was promised, but they never followed through.  The reason they couldn’t call was because they were “replacing their phone system.”
  10. I did copy their CEO, Roman Arnold, in the last few emails.  He hasn’t replied.
  11. Finally, they shipped the bike (yesterday) but as I’m leaving for a week of travel, I wouldn’t be able to receive the order.

Ultimately, this isn’t the first time someone’s been disappointed by this company, and their tone-deaf and completely callous support team is something that just can’t fly with a mail order only company.  So I’ve decided to not support this kind of mess, and have cancelled the order.  It will be probably be a small miracle if the refund gets processed.

I was also looking at buying another road bike this fall, so not only has the company lost a huge brand advocate, but they missed out on two sales (and more over the next few years).

It’s always a sad thing when a great brand dies.

How to Ask for Advice / Feedback About Your Startup

One of the things I’m passionate about is helping other startups and the community of entrepreneurs we have here in Edinburgh (and in Scotland).  Since becoming more intentional about “taking the pledge“, I’ve been meeting with lots of folks locally, and been surprised by the amount of requests!

So much so that other team members here at Administrate are helping me shoulder the load, according to areas of expertise (thanks Mike and Patrick!) and time constraints, and I know of many others in the community who are donating their time and expertise.  Helpfulness and support has always been a hallmark of the Scottish startup scene, so this isn’t anything new, but there’s so much more activity now, so many more companies, and so many more entrepreneurs now!  It’s great to see!

I’ve found that sometimes people don’t know what to expect, so I thought I’d lay out a brief framework to help everyone get the most out of the time.

  1. Remember that most advice is delivered within a context vacuum.  Don’t take my advice (or anyone else’s) without fully thinking things through and satisfying yourself.  Bad advice can come from really great people.
  2. In order to be at all helpful, I need context.  Things I usually ask about are: the problem you’re trying to solve (as a company), your business model (SaaS, etc), your market, some metrics around revenue, customers (people paying you money), team size, how long you’ve been going, growth, and churn.  It’s ok if you don’t have all of this information, but the quicker we can rattle through these items, the faster we can get up to speed.
  3. It’s totally cool if you just want to chat, but I’ll usually ask you what you’re biggest challenges are – we have these at Administrate and sometimes they feel cyclical (first we’re worried about sales, then tech, then support, then sales again, etc.).  Even if everything is going well, the question will often be “ok, how do we double down and make it even better?”
  4. I probably can’t help you too much with hiring (particularly “line” staff) – my network is mainly in the USA (so not local), and we’re in high growth mode here at Administrate, so if I know of any devs or whatever we’re probably going to hire them!
  5. Expect me to be very, very blunt.  If you’re British it may come across as almost hostile sometimes.  Sorry.  When I get into problem solving mode or analysis mode, I tend to interrupt, ask lots of questions, and don’t filter much.
  6. Expect me to play devil’s advocate.  Expect me to really push you on a few things.  Expect to be challenged.  The best advice I’ve ever received was from someone telling me they thought I could be a lot more ambitious, which annoyed me at the time, but really made a difference.
  7. One thing you won’t get from me is griping about raising money in the UK, finding a team, or complaining about Scottish Enterprise or Scottish Development International.  If you’re annoyed about these things, fine, but expect an argument from me!
  8. I’m not going to be very helpful to you with introductions to angels, VCs or syndicates.  These people all make their own decisions and won’t look at you in any different light if I make an intro for you.
  9. I won’t share anything about our conversation unless you specifically tell me you don’t mind.  I also expect the same in return.  This means I don’t mind if you want to ask me about challenges I’m facing now, etc.  We like to be transparent, and often it can be comforting to hear that someone else is going through something you’re struggling with.
  10. The majority of my experience and expertise is in high growth Business-to-Business Software-as-a-Service.  So be aware I’ll bias towards that style of company.  I don’t like most B2C ideas because they are riskier, require more funding earlier, require a lot of traction to be successful and are often harder to build and/or monetise.
  11. A couple of times things have gotten emotional (really!).  That’s OK! Building a business can be really hard.  Relationships are involved. It can feel overwhelming.  That’s normal.  Don’t be embarrassed.  It’s not the first time.
  12. Unfortunately, you may have your appointment changed around a few times.  Sorry, but Administrate comes first!  Also, it may be awhile before we can meet, and depending on what you’re looking to talk about, we may provide someone else from our team to give you a better perspective.

Hopefully that helps you get an idea of what to expect and makes everything run just a bit smoother!  I’ve enjoyed all of the conversations I’ve had and am always encouraged by the amazing people we have in Edinburgh working away on building things and solving problems.

Startups, Take the Pledge for Your Community

We’re about to kick off another year, resolutions have been made, lots of parties have been attended, a bunch of milestones have been reached, and it hopefully feels good to get some closure on a year and plan for another.

I’d like to challenge you to add one more resolution to the list, and instead of thinking of it as a resolution, treat it as a habit, a lifestyle, a core part of your duty as being a member of your startup community.

As a bit of background, my startup Administrate is founded in Scotland, backed by Scottish investors, and a member of the fledgling Edinburgh startup community.  Using the term fledgling to describe a group of companies that has produced two unicorns (Scotland has the highest rate of unicorn production per capita in the world) seems a bit weird, but it’s true.  Like most non-Silicon Valley, non-Boston, (dare I say non-American?) locations, the community here is fairly young.  Most of the founders and senior management teams are first timers here.  All of us are trying to tackle the inherent challenges of building a sustainable business while learning as fast as we can, hoping to not commit that fatal mistake (last piece of learning?) along the way.

It Doesn’t Get Easier, You Just Go Faster

In cycling they say that it never gets easier, you just go faster, and I really believe the same is true with startups.  This stuff is really hard.  Even when things are really rewarding, you know you’re on the cusp of making it, you’re getting that positive press coverage, you’ve just raised money, you just signed that huge deal, whatever the milestone is, it’s still really, really hard.

And here’s the thing – if you’re a senior team leader or founder, there’s not many options for support.  Your spouse won’t fully understand what you’re going through.  Your board isn’t the right venue for a freakout.  Your direct reports have problems of their own that they need support to help address.

Feeling alone is one of the worst feelings, but it’s also one of the most common in a startup.

A Solution?

I’ve found that the single best avenue for support as a founder, CEO, or senior team member is to talk with a peer, usually someone who is ahead of you on the journey.  I don’t even mean support as in therapy, I mean support as in “I’m having this problem, how did you solve it?”, roll-up-the-sleeves style problem solving.

In the last 2 years, there’s been several key moments where I’ve received advice/suggestions/thoughts from members of our community that have caused me to rethink, come up with a plan, and have ultimately seriously transformed our company and helped make it one of the fastest growing tech startups in Scotland.  Things would have been very different if I hadn’t had that time from others who were ahead of me on the journey.

Take the Pledge

Spend 30 minutes every week helping other startups within your community.

You can spend an hour every other week, two hours with one person, etc., I’m not bothered about the mechanics, but just make sure you’re investing.  You can still run a highly structured calendar, you can ask people to come with a specific question or problem, you can implement this however you want, but the key is to be available, be supportive, and spread as much knowledge as possible.  Even if you don’t know how to help your fellow startup, refer them to someone who might, or tell them to read a book or go to a conference.

The funny thing about this is that the people that helped transform Administrate by spending time with me usually didn’t remember the conversation when I went back and thanked them.  I’ve had several instances of the same thing happening to me when someone mentions what a great help I was and it turns out it was a 10 minute conversation at a party.  These things add up, but they can only do that with consistent attention, over time.

The other interesting thing about this is that it’ll help you run a better business too! Taking your head out of your problems to focus on something else can provide clarity, and I’ve never found a situation where I couldn’t learn something from another company.

Lets Talk

If you think I could be of help, let me know! Hit me up on Twitter, email (if you don’t have my direct email, send it through the main Administrate email), phone, etc.  Sometimes it’ll take a week or two to get something arranged, sometimes it’ll be via the phone, but hopefully it’ll be helpful.

I’ve Never Wished I Was Less Technical

I got an early-ish start with computers when I was about 6 or 7 years old.  My dad created an MS-DOS boot disk that got me to a DOS prompt on the one of the hard diskless IBM clones in his office.  Once I had booted to the command line, I’d put another floppy disk (these were 5.25 inch floppies, the ones that really flopped) in the B drive, type in the commands which I quickly memorised, and my six year old self would be ready for some hardcore word processing.  Using Multimate at first, but then moving on to PC Write, I penned a few short stories and would love to visit the office and use the computers.  My Dad’s staff even gave me access to the holy of holies – the one real IBM PC (not a clone) which had a 5 megabyte hard disk, and was protected by a password.  I was solemnly lectured to never disclose the password, not to anyone, and I never have, even to this day.

And so it was against this backdrop that I became interested in computers.  When I was nine my family bought our first computer from a back alley vendor in the Philippines.  It was an IBM compatible XT Turbo, which was technically an 8088, with a twenty megabyte hard disk and a monochrome CGA monitor.  It was outdated when we bought it, as the 386 had just been released, but I loved it.  I spent hours learning different software packages like Norton Commander, PC-Tools, and playing games like the Commander Keen trilogy.  We kept it until I was twelve, and then gave it to a Chinese friend when we replaced it with a 486 DX-33 we picked up in Hong Kong.  Built like a tank, it is probably still in operation somewhere.

Despite this early introduction to computers, I didn’t get started programming until I was sixteen.  It was harder then – we had just got the internet but the tutorials and blogs and wealth of easy information we have now didn’t exist.  It was also difficult to get the necessary software you needed – thanks to living in China I could buy a pirated copy of Borland C++ or Microsoft Visual C++ for about a dollar, but they were a bit overwhelming to setup.  I finally found someone who knew how to program and begged him into giving me a few sessions.  He had a book, helped me setup my compiler, and agreed to meet with me once a week to teach me.  I even managed to get these sessions accepted as school credit during my junior and senior year.  I still keep in touch with Erik now, and he was one of the groomsmen in my wedding.  Together we even managed to cobble together two “junk systems” from spare parts and after a few weeks of constant trial and error, we got Slackware running in 1998, still one of my proudest technical achievements.

Every American college bound student knows that their junior year of high school is crucial for getting accepted into their university of choice, and I began targeting computer science as my major.  I was heavily advised that I should focus on a business degree instead.  At the forefront of that group were several of my math teachers, who knew that I didn’t do well in that subject, but there were also many others who thought that I shouldn’t “waste” my people skills in a technical role.

But I was really enjoying programming!  My first real project was a string indexing program which could accept a block of text (much like this blog) and then create an alphabetical index of all the strings (words) and the number of times they appeared.  Written in C, I had to learn about memory management, debugging, data structures, file handling, functions, and a whole lot more.  It was way more mentally taxing than anything I’d ever done in school, and it required a ton of concentration.  I wasn’t bored like I often was in classes.  It was hard.  Erik would constantly challenge, berate, laugh at me, and most importantly, accurately assess me using an instructional style that I’d never been exposed to before – he only cared about the results, not the trying.

Although I was dead set on computer science, I really liked making money too.  My parents noticed this and for one semester during that crucial junior year they offered me financial rewards for grades achieved.  After I’d hosed my dad for over a hundred bucks due to my abnormally high grades that semester, he announced that “grades should be my own reward” and immediately discontinued the program.  There were plenty of people telling me that a degree in business would better suit these talents of mine, and if I was honest, at the time I knew they were probably right.  I was great in my non-science subjects, I could mail it in on papers and still get an A, and I knew that diligence, attention to detail, and math were weaknesses.  Getting a business degree would be stupidly easy.  Getting a computer science degree would be pretty hard, at least for me.

I was close to changing my mind when Erik mentioned, “You know, I’ve never wished I was less technical.”

This is advice that I really took to heart.  It rung true when I was seventeen.  It’s even more true today.

For me, the advantage that I incurred by getting a computer science degree meant that I could start my own consulting company and be one of the technical contributors while also being responsible for the business stuff.  It helped me obtain positions of leadership because I didn’t need technical middle men to explain things to me.  If things were going poorly, I could help manage the crisis effectively, and when things were going well I could explain why and point out the technical decisions that had carried us to success.

Guess what?  I got to do all the business stuff too!  Having a technical background has never limited my business acumen or hampered me in any way.  I haven’t coded for money since 2007, but I use my knowledge and experience every day, and I stay up to date with technology as much as possible.  I love it when our technical lead shows me the code behind the latest feature.  If anything, having an appreciation for complexity, code, and systems design has only helped me design and implement better budgets, business models, and pricing schemes.  I’ve never met any “business person” who is better than me at Excel, the language of business, and much of that stems from just knowing how to program.  This has made me the goto guy in almost every planning or budget meeting I’ve ever been in.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way.  People who aren’t technical will always struggle in any technically related environment.  I’ve met so many people who have struggled and struggled to make their great idea a reality chiefly because they weren’t technical, couldn’t contribute, couldn’t cut through the bullshit, and therefore couldn’t effectively manage their way to success.  Sometimes, they’ll try to fake it and just lose the respect of the programmers.  As many times as I’ve thought to myself how glad I am that I have a technical background, I’ve had others voice to me the frustration that they just wish they knew more about technology.

If you’re reading this, and you’re trying to figure out which way to go in life, make sure you get technical first.  If you didn’t choose that path, there’s still plenty of time – get out there and learn to code.  There are so many resources.

This is what the “everyone should learn to code” movement is really saying – not that everyone should be a coder, but that everyone could benefit from understanding the environment, pressures, and disciplines that drive a huge part of our economy.  It’s not just business either – artists can benefit from more creative displays and better performing websites, not-for-profits could benefit from volunteers who know how to help out in technical areas, and it’s just nice sometimes to be the guy who can get the projector working in a foreign country!

So get technical.  You’ll never regret it.  And if you’re a programmer and you ever see a kid who wants to learn, help them out, you may just find a friend for life.

Focus on Systems, Not Goals

DilbertI had the pleasure of reading a recent article by Scot Adams (creator of Dilbert) on the secret to success.  One of the points he made really resonated with me as it’s something we’ve been stressing (with increasing success) for the last few months at Administrate:  Don’t focus on goals, focus on systems.

In short, rather than focus everyone on your Key Performance Indicators (although these are important to know and track), focus instead on systems and processes that breed success.  For example, like most organisations with a customer services team, we have a lot of data about tickets, resolution times, how long issues sit in different status states, and a whole lot more.  It’s really easy to get caught up on “how many tickets we have open!” when zero bugs or zero open issues isn’t really the point.  Instead, we’ve been focused on perfecting the systems and processes we use to tackle these metrics.  Instead of feeling successful when we reach an arbitrary (and impossible) goal of zero outstanding issues or problems, we’re focusing on improving the systems we have in place to tackle these issues.  Now we feel successful when we can know that issues will be triaged, attacked, and solved in a correct and repeatable manner.  See the difference?

Get the system right, and your KPIs and other indicators will fall in line.  Get the system wrong, and you’ll be chasing an increasingly dismal looking set of metrics that never seem to improve.

As we continue to grow and scale, focus on systems and our values becomes more and more important.  I’m really proud of how far we’ve come as a team, and am very excited at what’s still to come!