Gut -> Data -> Gut

I usually split decisions into ‘reversible‘ and ‘irreversible‘ (or very hard to reverse) decisions. For reversible decisions, it makes sense to experiment and test things out incrementally but for irreversible decisions I really like the gut->data->gut framework which I first heard nicely articulated by Sukhinder Singh Cassidy here.

Whenever I’m at an irreversible decision, I always write down my gut instinct at the beginning of the decision making process. I then come up with a structured framework to collect any data and rank order options against each other along the relevant dimensions. At the end of this process I put aside the analysis and then go with my gut.

The data gathering and analysis phase is really to make sure that there are no big gaps in my thinking and to make sure that one option is not clearly better or worse than another along more objective measures.

As I’ve gotten older and applied this framework over and over again my gut instinct at the start and and the end is usually much more consistent.

This same framework is also useful when deciding what to build and prioritizing as a product manager and having to trade off features against each other.

Personal Productivity Tools

I love using tools to make myself more productive and let fewer things fall through the cracks. There are so many great (free) tools available and here are a few of the ones that have helped me the most:

Calendly: Scheduling is one of the biggest time sinks for me. Calendly allows me to share my availability (in time slots that I define) and allow people to schedule time with me without the back and forth usually required. It usually saves me 3-5 emails per scheduled call and I like it better than using virtual assistants like Clara or Byron ($200 per month each). I use the free version which I imagine would fit most people’s needs.

Streak: If you manage any kind of pipeline (sales, investments, recruiting) and use gmail, then I highly recommend Streak. I’ve used it to track potential investments, investors and for recruiting. Streak allows you to have a CRM in your inbox and also scales well to multiple users. It allows me to stay organized, have a record of interactions, and make sure that I don’t let to-dos drop. I use the free version as well, but it costs $50 per month if you’re using it with multiple people or need API access.

Gmail canned responses: I realized that I was very frequently writing the same set of emails over and over again: 1) Scheduling time 2) Making a connection 3) Product information 4) Passing on an investment. I use the Gmail canned response feature to add in the re-used content in addition to the personalized note that I send.

Personal Goal Setting and Living Deliberately

December 2018

I wanted to share my personal process for goal setting and living more deliberately, that I’ve been doing for the last 8 years. I always do it around this time of the year so thought it was a timely moment to share 🙂

My objective in life is to maximise both long term happiness and purpose which, although is a generic statement, is a common objective for most people in the world. This objective is very hard to achieve without breaking it down into small, actionable pieces, much like personal OKRs.

I break this objective into 5 ‘pillars’:

  1. Family/Friends
  2. Partner and Kids
  3. Health
  4. Career
  5. Hobbies/Leisure

For the last 8 years, I’ve gone through this process at the same time each year (between Christmas and the New Year) and conduct a half-year and end-of-year check in where I rate myself from 1–3 on each goal (1 is good and 3 is bad).

Here is a screenshot from the google doc template that I use:

Please feel free to use the template for yourself (by creating a copy), and do share any feedback.

When I first started this process, I realized that I was bad at both setting the right goals, and having an actionable process to be able to hit my goals. Over the years I’ve improved at setting goals (mostly by setting more achievable goals) and now have a system to make sure that I am focused on 3–5 things each month/week/day that allow me to make progress towards each goal. Very practically, I have a persistent to-do list and a set of monthly goals in Evernote and before I go to sleep I slot tasks/reminders for the following day into my calendar to make sure I get them done.

For example, if I have an objective to be more informed about the world, and I’ve set the goal to read the Economist weekly I will create a recurring weekly meeting in my calendar at the same time (Sunday at 8pm) to sit down and read it.

Overall, I find it’s really helped me improve the quality of my life and be more deliberate about how I live on a day to day basis, and I’d highly recommend you try it!

State of Tech in Kenya

Note: I wrote this about 9 months ago after spending most of 2015 living and working in Nairobi. I have had enough people express interest in reading my notes that I thought I would share broadly.

Summary

  • I lived Kenya over the last 6 months and left feeling inspired. I believe there is tremendous opportunity for awesome entrepreneurs to build products for the East African market. In particular, I would be well suited to focus on something that bridges the gap between the West and Africa 
  • There is a lot of raw talent, fundamental problems that need solving, and plenty of enthusiasm and excitement around building technology companies
  • There are few excellent company builders / focused executors and a lack of a proper seed/venture firm or decent incubator. ‘A’ level entrepreneurs (silicon valley, local or elsewhere) who have built a successful business are sparse
  • Access to seed and early stage capital is difficult and the fundraising process is suboptimal due to the lack of proper local vc funds which leads to entrepreneurs chasing short term revenue and lack of focus on the long term objective – funding/focus is a chicken/egg problem

Startups and Entrepreneurs

  • Entrepreneurs are hungry, have lots of enthusiasm and there is a plenty of excitement in young talent who want to build something awesome.
  • Startups are solving fundamental issues vs. incremental issues in the west –  access to good education, electricity, health care and phone/internet. There are opportunities to build on top of these solutions or provide additional products and services that are already mainstream in the west – I’m particularly excited about financial services.
  • Entrepreneurs often have their fingers in lots of pies, can be distracted by too many ventures, and seem to be doing too much with too little capital and too few people. This leads to lots of half-formed businesses versus a few well built ones
    • Chasing (short term) revenue is required to grow businesses here due to lack of access to capital for early stage businesses
    • This is partly due to the opportunistic nature of working in Kenya, and more commonplace with local entrepreneurs
  • Entrepreneurs lack role models in the community that they can get mentorship from who can help them with product strategy, marketing, assembling the right team, raising funding, and scaling the business. Some missing pieces:
    • Best in class experience – understanding of what ‘great’ looks like
    • Successful Kenyan technology entrepreneurs – groups of people who have built and exited an excellent businesses in Kenya (or East Africa)
  • Foreign entrepreneurs are met with mixed feelings especially when it’s believed that they are only in Kenya for a fixed period of time. I believe that foreign entrepreneurs can add a lot of value by mentoring local talent especially if they have best in class global experience and hire local teams

Investment – Venture Capital / Incubators

  • Local funds either have very little capital to deploy or strict mandates about where they can deploy their capital because of conditions stipulated by their LPs – leads to defocusing in startups
  • Entrepreneurs looking to raise small seed rounds have a few options:
    • Raise capital from local angels who are not often sophisticated investors and often don’t understand what they are signing up for
    • Raise money as grants or from funds (with LPs who have strict investment criteria) and these come with conditions that often result in unnecessary/unhelpful changes in strategy
    • Go on long (many month) investment trips across Europe and USA which are also usually an uphill battle and often result in small ticket angels vs. larger funds
  • This current fundraising process feels inefficient and distracts entrepreneurs from focusing on their product and company from both a time and strategy perspective
  • Local incubators have unfriendly terms for entrepreneurs and are not run by successful entrepreneurs or investors
    • Incubators typically have many companies vs. a few companies with lots of mentorship and focus
    • $25k investment for 15-25% of the company plus terms which are not founder friendly e.g. ratchets, clawbacks, pushing to early exit
    • Many incubators have shut down their program as they could not find enough quality companies – I think this is in part due to the fact that they were going for scale vs. focused set of companies
  • Grant funding can be disruptive and distracting – companies are incentivised to abandon their vision in the ‘short term’ (to get the grant) and end up building a frankenstein company with multiple focuses which is hurtful in the long term

Working in Kenya – Personal Takeaways

  • Talent gap still pretty significant (orders of magnitude worse than Silicon Valley, which is not surprising) although there is thirst for learning and a no lack of young people who are not afraid to work very hard
  • Mid-Skill workers care more about job protection than innovating and often see change/removing things from their plate as scary – will they lose their job, or not be good at the new thing we need them to do
  • Micromanagement is necessary to make progress – you can’t just email people and expect stuff to get done. There is constant checking in and auditing of people’s work. The level of trust still does not exist at the same level as working with ‘A’ level talent in a place like San Francisco
  • My decision point is between spending my time training, teaching and mentoring in East Africa or or serve this market from abroad (with an already high performing team) and travel back and forth as needed
  • Local:
    • Pros: Close to market and people, can really help mentor folks, market changing fast, partnerships are easier
    • Cons: spending time on micromanagement v.s solving hard problems, personal life issues, quality of life
  • Foreign:
    • Pros: Better team quality, valuations, exit options, potential to build global business
    • Cons: not close to customers, coordination overhead, travel burden, missing important things

Changing my Industry

I left my job at Pocket Gems in 2015 to figure out what I should do next with my life. I had always wanted to work on technology in emerging markets (particularly sub-saharan Africa) and did not really know the best way to start doing that. I’m Kenyan, born in Mombasa, but have spent the majority of my adult life in the UK and USA. I decided to move to Kenya temporarily to figure out the best way for me to work on emerging market problems. 

I met over 50 startups, investors and technologists, spent a few months working at M-Kopa and learned a lot from my time in Nairobi.  I realised how much my eyes opened up by just spending time physically in the country and interacting with like-minded people on a day to day basis. I spent around a year learning, thinking and considering what to do next and it was one of the most rewarding years I’ve had in a long time. 

I ultimately decided to work at Segovia Technology, based out of NYC, which is a financial services company focused on sub-saharan Africa. I chose to do this over moving back to Kenya for a variety of personal and professional reasons and I’m excited for this next phase of my career. 

Segovia has a mission that appeals to me (using technology to aid poverty alleviation), has an excellent team who is hungry and focused on succeeding, and is primarily focused on Africa. In the best case, we will be able to reach hundreds of millions of people and in our fail case we help a few thousand people receive aid. 

I’d like to spend the next phase of my career building products for sub-saharan Africa and supporting amazing entrepreneurs who are focused on the region through angel investing (e.g. OKHI, M-Kopa, BRCK). I feel like technology is the path to economic development and poverty alleviation in countries like Kenya and I’m excited to be a part of the journey.

Individual Contributor to Manager

In my last role at Pocket Gems, I transitioned from an individual contributor (IC) to a manager and then to a manager of managers. It was a hard transition as we grew from 5 people to 150 in less than a year and a half, but I learned a lot along the way. I was directly responsible for a team of about 10 -15 product managers and indirectly responsible for a multi-function team of about 120 people.

In order to transition from an IC role to a manager role, it’s important to be a functional expert so that you can win the respect of the people that you manage. If you’re not a top quartile functional product manager it’s very difficult to progress into a management role. When you transition from a management role to a manager of managers the skill set is completely different. Your skills as an IC become less relevant and your role evolves into a strategy, staffing, prioritisation and coordination role vs. being a great IC. You need to create systems to be able to get the right information at the right time through data, people, and process. This then informs strategy, which leads to prioritisation and staffing.

I personally found the transition from IC to a manager of managers role quite depressing. I realised that I gained fulfillment from completing tasks (running analyses, designing features etc) and I was doing very little of these tasks any more. I became much more comfortable in the role after I did a few things:

  1. I read the High Output Management and the Hard Thing about Hard Things
  2. I kept 10-20% of my time to work on IC type projects from running a particular analysis to designing a new feature that I wanted to test.
  3. I gained fulfillment from developing others and seeing them grow as product managers

I do think the best leaders are able to work along all the dimensions of IC, Manager and Manager of Managers. People who perform well at all these dimensions scale particularly well at growth startups and are a great fit for leadership roles at early stage companies.

There are a few other things that I learned, mainly by screwing them up a few times and dealing with the ramifications of my screwups. These mistakes can permanently break trust with people, create really strained working relationships and are hard lessons I learned along the way.

  • Genuinely care about people on your team. There is no substitute for authenticity and your team will be able to tell if you’re apathetic towards them.
  • What you say as a manager is amplified because of your position – you have to be even more thoughtful about what you say as you can distract the team unnecessarily and also affect morale both negatively and positively with even a few words.
  • Never take credit publically for yourself (give it to others) and always have tough conversations 1-on-1 privately. Building loyalty with your team will pay for itself 10x in the long run.
  • Great managers never complain about their team. They understand what the individuals are capable of, set them up for success and then manage expectations upwards.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes – figure out what motivates them, what they care about and manage to those things. This should be one of the first conversations you have with someone new on your team. I often talk about my motivations first in order to break the ice.
  • Make each person feel respected and valued regardless of their role – if someone’s role is sometimes more ‘thankless’ (e.g. QA) it’s even more important to celebrate wins.
  • Focus on process to make things better vs. placing blame on individuals (very easy to do, especially in the heat of the moment). It’s very easy to damage relationships permanently by doing this repeatedly.
  • Deal with personel/performance issues expediently. The person affected and the rest of the team will appreciate this in the medium term (but often not in the short term). Dragging your feet here will lose you respect at all levels of the organisation.
  • Learn how to influence. People respond much better if they feel like they came to the conclusion themselves vs. forcing the outcome onto them. There are lots of levers for influence and using these levers thoughtfully is an art e.g. do it for yourself (own goals), do it for the company, do it for the team, do it for me (manager).
  • Be transparent with your team. If people have context they will perform better. This does not mean sharing noise (information that is not a useful signal or irrelevant) with the team; a common misconception when talking about transparency.

I am learning more every day in this capacity, and writing these learnings down helps me systematise my learning.  I hope that others out there find some of this useful as well.

Why are people with MBAs called ‘MBAs’ forever?

I don’t really get why people who have MBAs are pigeon holed with an ‘MBA’ as their primary tagline for the rest of their careers. It’s a short part of your career and half the length of your undergraduate degree. Why am I more of an MBA than an engineer?

I think people probably get a few things out of doing an MBA:

  1. Branding: Much like working at a recognised company, going to a recognised business school helps open doors

  2. Friendships/Network: You make great friends and people at business school are at the same stage of life and in the same mindset, so you make lots of lasting friendships in a short period of time

  3. Lifestyle: Business school is fun. You travel, you play sports, you party and live in a new city/country

  4. Content: You learn from your courses, classmates and professors

I spent 2 years of my life doing my MBA and it was a lot of fun.  I made great friends, travelled to cool places and learned some interesting things through the case method. But by no means do I think it defines me, my aspirations, the way I think or what I value.

I love thinking about what new products and platforms will shape our future and how I can contribute. I love building things and get satisfaction from people deriving utility/joy from the things I build. I feel energised by geeking out about solving analytical problems at work, discussing gameplay strategies in League of Legends or Hearthstone, or just the act of shipping something before a weekend. I’ve spent the last 10 years working in technology and the last 5 in product management. I know I want to spend my career building products and investing in great companies. I feel like my choice of career defines me so much more than whether or not I have an MBA and I’m sure many other ‘MBAs’ feel the same.

Founding a Company – When?

I don’t think that I am a born entrepreneur. I think that I can see opportunity and potential, and have some ideas but I’ve not yet taken the plunge to start my own business. The truth is that I am pretty risk averse. I have been interested in technology for a while now, but only been considering the entrepreneurial path for the past 2-3 years.

There are lots of schools of thought about what stage in your personal and professional career to start a venture but I think that the two most important things are:

  • Market Opportunity – You need to have spent some time with your target market and understand where significant gaps lie. Finding a solution for these gaps is the next step, but it’s likely that your original idea will evolve significantly as your try and address these gaps. The balance of having a strong vision for your product yet knowing when you need to change direction is a key skill for successful entrepreneurs.
  • Being Ready – You have got to feel like you are ready to start your own company and have faith in your skills and and abilities. And whatever you lack, you need to have the faith that you’ll be able to figure it out or surround yourself with people you trust that can figure it out for you..
I have really not felt ready yet, and it’s a function of not finding the right market opportunity but also not having enough faith in myself yet. I feel that I need to build a successful product under the guidance of someone who has proven themselves before I do it on my own. 
In the end everyone has their own threshold for risk and when to start a company is a very personal call, but I hope to build some awesome products at my current company (Pocket Gems) which are profitable businesses too. I really hope it works out, but regardless, I’m super excited about the journey.

Blogging: It’s the right thing to do

I was initially skeptical about starting my own blog. I did not really see the point – who would read it and care what I had to say? I’ve actually found it to be a pretty interesting outlet for crystalizing my viewpoints on subject matter that is interesting or topical to me (and probably many MBA students in my position). I feel it’ll pay off at some point in a way that I would not expect – and for now i’m just enjoying expressing my thoughts.

I’m taking a class this semester with Misiek Piskorski called ‘Competing with Social Networks (CSN)’ and it’s got me to think about my online ‘brand’. I think that a blog is simply another outlet to help re-enforce this brand together with your Linkedin, facebook, twitter, Digg etc profiles – all content that you can control about yourself. A blog can also serve as a way to meet new people who are interested in your thoughts / content and also deepen relationships you have with your current network. I think it would be awesome to have a case on blogging in our CSN course…

Fred Wilson posted a few weeks ago about a blog being a very important part of your online brand and that Union Square Ventures have hired their junior investment staff on the basis of their blogs. Is a blog really more important or useful as a hiring tool than a resume? I see a resume as a collection of brands which leads to a yes/no decision on meeting the candidate. A blog is a much more powerful way of understanding how someone thinks. Resume’s and blogs serve different purposes but I can definitely see the value from a recruiting perspective of having your own blog.

I’ve also been kind of obsessing about the analytics for the site – there are a bunch of free sources that give you loads of information – I use Google Analytics and Sitemeter I’ve been tracking are the details of people who come to the site – Location, Entry Pages, Source of Click. I generally post new blog entries on twitter, facebook and Google Buzz. Facebook seems to get me the most clicks, followed by twitter and then Buzz.

I’ve had old friends reach out to me about businesses they are starting or working on, and I’ve picked up some followers on twitter who are not in my immediate network. It’s been really cool to see the effect of my blog on these old, ill maintained relationships and also in making new relationships and I am looking forward to seeing how blogging will continue to enrich my personal and professional life.

Approaching Start-Ups and VCs

Continuing on from my last post.. an MBA looking for a start up opportunity..

I think it’s important when you approach early stage start-ups and Venture Capitalists to clearly articulate what value you could bring (particularly for small ventures) but try and retain humility. You want to make it an easy decision for them to say yes to having a conversation with you.

There seems to be some negative feeling (arrogance and entitlement) associated with HBS MBAs in the start up community in particular and it’s our collective responsibility to try and quel that sentiment. My proposed approach is to be totally honest about your expectations and motivations for wanting to join the start-up and be flexible on compensation, equity and your job title. I think it’s really important to emphasize (and actually believe) that you are motivated by the same things as your potential colleagues and being honest and flexible upfront is the way to understand your compatibility as quickly as possible.

In general, I try and think about things from the eyes of the person receiving your message….

An important part of a Venture Capitalist’s job is to help recruit talent for his/her portfolio companies. I think you should make it as easy as possible for them to forward your application over to their CEOs. These guys are often busy and do a lot of work from their mobile devices – if your story is compelling and your credentials look good, I don’t see why they would not send your message to their portfolio companies.

A couple of guidelines that I use (in chronological order):

  • Introduce yourself clearly and highlight your current situation (when you graduate) in the first line
  • State which particular companies in their portfolio you are interested in
  • Articulate what you would like to do/what skills you bring based on some sort of expertise
  • Identify why these skills/expertise would be important for the portfolio company
  • Show that although you have a value proposition you are willing to be flexible 
  • Ask to speak with the VC – they will most often not have time but are awesome people to get advice from
I think the same principles apply to when you are approaching a venture directly, but I try and talk a little bit more about why I like the product/company. Founders/CEOs are pretty emotionally attached to their products and it’s always nice for them to receive positive feedback from their users.
I am of the opinion that no conversation with a smart, successful person in a field that you are interested is a wasted conversation and each one will help you understand a little more about what you want and perhaps open up new opportunities – you never know!! 
I’ve had reasonable but not exceptional success with this approach so would love to get other peoples’ thoughts – would be good to share the collective wisdom.