startup

Wanted: Smarty Pants, apply within.

Chris talked about customer intimacy last month and that kind of thing always gets my mental juices flowing. When an idea like that is laid out in front of you, it’s a head slapping "of course" and "weren’t we doing that already?" thought.

Being around really smart people like Chris and Zach gives you a Newtonian stance on ideas; you get to rest your mind on top of fully baked thoughts. You also get critical, constructive analysis of your own musings and ultimately both our clients and Juice reap the benefits.

But where do you find the kind of people who live for this stuff? It’s not like you can pop down to the mall and pick up a clutch of insightful, ultra-curious, Excel-wielding Python gurus. No, there are really just two solutions: You have to stumble on them or grow your own.

Stumbling on smart people really is tons of fun. Some of what works is really obvious and takes the form of talking to people at conferences, wooing people with great blogs, reaching out to some of the better user groups, and posting on places like Craig’s List. Actually that last one isn’t so obvious because unless you can articulate your company’s worldview in a few muscular paragraphs you’re just going to attract the wrong kinds of people. If your post is too wacky you’ll be treated to an interpretive dance during the interview to detail how a project was a success. And if your ad is too dour you’ll attract the living dead. Oh, the horror.

A few years ago popular belief held that there were oodles of highly trained, big-brained technology folks begging for work. That might have been partially true, but I do know a lot of carpetbaggers left the business to go back to whatever carpetbaggers are doing these days. I’ve been blessed with working with some amazingly brilliant people over the years. None of them have ever had a problem finding work. Ever, ever, ever. Those are the kinds of folks you want to go out of your way to stumble upon.

The second method of growing your own might sound like a leap of faith but it’s really effective if you can pull it off. Back in the mid nineties, I was King of the Internet for a rapidly growing software company. Much like everybody else, we suffered the slings and arrows of an outrageous job market, and finding top notch talent was an uphill struggle. The world had all but lost its mind and you’d find yourself seriously mulling the thought of shelling out $100k a year for an HTML "programmer." Plus signing bonus, of course.

No, that would never do. Something different had to be done.

That’s where working with brilliant people comes in handy. If you float what might be an out-of-the-ordinary idea they’ll actually think it over before voting either way. We had this crazy idea to take really clever people from outside the industry and train the living daylights out of them.

Boy, it worked like a charm. I still keep in touch with a few of these rather bright individuals and they’re still enjoying the heck out of their careers. One is still with the company, one with a smaller software outfit, and the third is a consultant for one of the largest consulting entities.

Whichever route you take, you can only squeeze out really juicy ideas from the right kind of brain. In our case we value creativity, chutzpah, a smart work ethic, dedication, and unbridled curiosity. It’s not enough to teach somebody to be effective with a toolset and, to paraphrase Potter Stewart, we know smarts when we see them.

Most extreme business start-up challenge

Here’s an analogy about start-ups that we were batting around recently: Perhaps you have seen Most Extreme Elimination Challenge (MXC) on Spike TV. There is a game within this show called "Wall Bangers". Contestants face a wall with a set of paper-covered openings. They are told to charge at the "opening" of their choosing. Unfortunately for them, behind most of the paper openings is solid wall. Crazed with TV fame, the contestants charge at the openings in hopes of bursting through. It looks something like this:

MXC1
MXC3

Starting a business can feel the same way: there are few clues of the obstacles you are likely to encounter and plenty of opportunity to go splat. You have a few options:

1. You can make an educated guess as to the best door to charge at, build up momentum by developing a great product, raising money and hiring a skilled team, then throw yourself at the target. If you find the right opportunity, your momentum can thrust you deep into success. At the same time, the risk of a painful flameout is high.

2. You may decide that this game is for fools. Most of the doors are dead-ends. There is never going to be enough information to know what you’ll encounter, no matter how much you examine the problem. Better to stay on your side of the wall -- something most of the MXC contestants wish they could choose.

3. The final approach is to go poking at the different openings looking for the one that has real opportunity. Admittedly, this method is both timid and likely to take longer. Maybe an opportunity will disappear -- but it does lets you play the game while avoiding the risk of flattening your face on a wall.