Month: March 2018

  • Car Calls, Signature Lines and Paying it Forward

    For as far back as I remember, I have received a ton of help and guidance from more experienced people who have asked for very little or nothing in return.

    I meet a lot of entrepreneurs, founders and early-stage folks. I’m an optimist and an extrovert. I usually want to help them if I can.

    While I have flexibility in my schedule right now, I’m really trying to pay it forward as much as possible to hopefully maximize my potential impact on the next class of builders in our Philly startup ecosystem and beyond.

    I have also found a ton of joy in all of this. The “helper high” is a real thing.

    Many new people I meet immediately push to have coffee, dinner or drinks which, to their chagrin, I consistently turn down.

    Sometimes I can feel their annoyance, but it’s is just too heavy of a lift given the flexible but still time-constrained nature of my schedule (family, other work, advisory etc). It’s also a big first commitment considering I don’t typically know them very well.

    These days I shoot for a “car call” which I find to be a quick and effective way to help someone while also getting a low-risk moment to decide on the nature of our potential future relationship. We all click with some people, but not with others. If given the choice, we avoid the latter. I certainly do.

    Lee Anne and I manage a constantly changing list of people who we think I can quickly help with some time on the phone. Usually, calls are are 30-60 minutes and loosely set up with an “I’ll call you Wednesday after 2 pm” or “Expect to hear from me late next week.” I fit the calls into remnant travel time in the car.

    I’m always bummed when I find that moment to connect with someone, but then there is no contact number to be found in any of our previous correspondence. I just have to move to the next person on the list.

    How is there no email signature with a phone number?

    I think about myself in those early startup moments where I needed a time-sensitive life raft. Now I’m the guy potentially holding the life raft for someone else, but I have nowhere to throw it.

    I end up having to send another email to track down a number and in a lot of cases, I don’t reconnect with that person for a week or so. Sometimes that week really matters to them. It’s a bummer.

    A few tips for startup folk if we cross paths or you find yourself in a similar spot with someone else:

    1. Don’t take it personally if someone who wants to help you also has some specificity surrounding their workflow, the how and the potential when. There is probably a method to their madness. There is to mine. Sometimes the help comes with some scheduling strings attached.
    2. At the very least, have a short email signature line and make sure you have some phone number or direct method for realtime communication in it. Never give someone who’s committed to connecting with you for your potential benefit a quick excuse to move to the next person. Eliminate friction.

    I know much of this seems so obvious, but I’m blown away at how many people miss on those two things. I see it all the time. It happens monthly. I’m just trying to help.

  • Common Traits of the Best Employees – Part 1

    Recently, I had high velocity Mexican with one of RevZilla’s 2008 summer interns. His name is Jake, and he’s awesome.

    He was one of our first two interns, before any full-time hires and he was unpaid. We had no idea how to manage people at that point, so we couldn’t really get mad at him or the other guy (Jesse who is also awesome) for watching a lot of World Cup that summer.

    Our conversation was a mixture of comparing notes on both of our climbs up career mountain and looking for the common insights and shared pattern recognition along the way.

    I always find these conversations rewarding as they are a mixture of sharing, coaching and self-reflection focused on helping the next class of achiever achieve. He’s 10 years my junior and these types of meetings are some of the most enjoyable recurring moments I have had in my time since leaving RevZilla daily operations.

    Of the many things we talked about, he did ask me one pretty pointed question which spawned a great discussion and this post.

    What were the most important commonalities of the best employees or hires you made over the last decade?

    He was looking for a sanity check and potential booster for self-development in the hopes of further accelerating his own trajectory. Some more grease on the wheels of upward mobility and personal growth, if you will.

    For me, I believe that the team is everything as it relates to the success of the organization post product market fit. I have spent inordinate amounts of time looking for patterns and discussing this with people over the years.

    As we dove into the weeds, we both jotted some notes down which turned into this list of some of the best traits of the best hires I ever made, both as a manager and as an executive. As the title of this post implies, here’s the first round in no particular order.

    The best follow through consistently. The best are asked something once and in the moment or later on get the clarity they need to ensure they know what complete looks like. They do the work to ensure they capture the ask accurately and keep management abreast of progress until finished.

    This is the opposite of the “black hole effect,” where unless things are spelled out and given with a due date to someone, the ask, large or small, vanishes into the black hole of a wasted discussion, wasted meeting and/or feel good happy talk. Nothing is more frustrating than having to say to someone, “Remember our conversation? I have it in my notes. What happened to that? Where is that? That never got done? etc.” You can imagine this may happen at junior levels, but shockingly, it can happen at the senior level, as well, albeit sometimes with different root causes.

    This is so simple, but it’s amazing how often people at all levels can think that agreeing in the moment and then flaking out later can be OK.

    For managers: This can be vetted during the totality of the hiring process in how people interact with you, schedule with you or HR and by looking for attention to detail in their responses and communications. Ref checks help here as well – granted you can get to the right refs (another post for another time).

    The best are self-starters. This may seem like follow through again, but it’s slightly different. The best, when asked for A, B and C, also come back with an opinion on the related D, E and F. They discovered when doing the original A, B, C work, the necessary next elements – so they just did them. Self-starting demonstrates drive, common sense, commitment and ability. It’s also a big sign of promotability when as a manager you find yourself pleasantly surprised not just by the quality and consistency of someone’s work, but also by the scope adjustments which make it that much more impactful and actionable. On the flip side, if I have to spoon feed you tasks and next steps, regardless of a hire level, the machine (or me) is probably on a path to eating you.

    For managers: Look for a potential candidate’s side projects or responsibility outside of work. Also internal promotions in title and responsibilities over time within previous companies is a great indicator. I even asked questions about early jobs back to teenage years. “You got promoted to Assistant Manager at DQ when you were 16? Great.” In many cases the self-starter traits show up early in life.

    The best list their career as their passion. This one is more related to early hires and individual contributors from a manager’s lens, as more senior hires tend to have checked this box implicitly, or they would not have made it to senior positions to begin with.

    Relating to the 3 most important focuses and/or passions in someone’s life, I’m fine with family as #1 (mine is) and potentially one other thing accompanying career to round out the top 3. If someone’s list does not have their work at or near the top of their list after family, it’s a problem. The best hires are engaged and constantly evolving in and out of the office. Their work and their craft is their passion, their focus and a source of joy, interest and satisfaction.

    Millennial or not, beware those who do not aspire to commit to climb the tough climb, achieve, improve, learn, grow and ascend. I’m not saying that people should not have a healthy life full of things that they enjoy to make them happy and satisfied, but I am saying that if career is not a primary focus, it’s a problem. Hiring people for important roles who are “offering you their time” to enable the long list of other things outside the office are probably great people, but they will be a roadblock to company speed, engagement, productivity, morale, and will spend lots of time scorekeeping  – and if you let them – will hire more folks like them, perpetuating a walk-at-the-bell or clock-watching mentality.

    On a positive note, there are plenty of slower and safer companies where they will be very happy. Those opportunities don’t change much and should allow someone to max their vacation time at 10 weeks per year. Great for them, their work-life balance and someone else’s team, just a deal breaker within a more progressive and change-fueled environment.

    For managers: Look for passion about work which shows up in who they read, what they read, who they follow, what projects or clubs they do outside of the office and their approach to staying relevant and leveling up, etc. Is their career a HUGE part of who they are as people or is it just something they do? You want the former.

    The best ask a ton of great questions. The best come to you consistently with excellent questions demonstrating 1) they are exploring, curious and driven to expeditiously understand what they don’t know about their role, the industry and the org etc. and 2) their ego or fear is not getting in the way of them leading with what they do not know.

    A quick indicator of a potentially bad hire at any level is a lack of intelligent questions, which could stem from a lack of ability, lack of engagement, an overwhelming fear of not knowing or an ego that can’t stand to be anything but perceived as perfect or omnipotent. Smart cookies realize that asking lots of great questions maximizes the learning curve and time to impact. It also offers a moment to show insight and, just as important, a moment to endear themselves to the person they are asking for help. If the goal is to quickly build a bond, ask someone for help. Or, as Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you want to make a friend, ask a favor”. Same principle.

    For managers: Does a potential candidate come loaded for bear during all stages of the interview? Did they do their homework on the company? Are the questions insightful and show higher level thought and interest? During the first 30 days post hire, are they looking to “drink from the firehose,” filling your interactions with lists of pre-captured questions? Or are they giving off a vibe of oversimplification and “don’t worry I got it” or “I’ll figure it out eventually”? Are they trying to understand the customer, company and their role or just their role? When things are discussed where it’s clear they have no mastery, do they want to dive in with you to figure it out even if it’s beyond them, or just feign enough knowledge to hopefully end the discussion without revealing how much they don’t know?

    Thanks to Jake, for a great question over high velocity Mexican which led me to cataloging my thoughts more formally.

    This was a fun brain dump that turned into thoughts for those thinking about accelerating the early part of the climb. It also hopefully offered some pattern recognition for those who are in positions of vetting, hiring, coaching and managing people.

    This was the first four. More to come….

  • I Love and Hate Sirius Radio

    I love music. I hate commercials. I spend a ton of time in the car. I love Sirius Radio’s product. I hate Sirius Radio customer and billing practices.

    I have paid for Sirius Radio since 2007 across three autos and a digital login. I no longer pay Sirius for their service, although I still love and miss the product.

    A while back, our cars were coming up for renewal and the calls started coming in. I don’t mind the calls save for the fact that they are clearly off-shored and are sometimes hard to understand. Part of scale for them, I guess.

    For 2018 though, there was a difference when it came time to renew. I had already indicated that I wanted to continue and during the enrollment I asked when the contract ended. I was then made aware that there was no option for a set time length.

    All new plans are auto-renew in perpetuity. Huh?

    Essentially they wanted me to sign up to be billed forever, with yearly increases baked in, I’m sure. Well, at least until I remember to call or check a bill. Nope.

    I offered to pre-pay two autos for the year but did not want an auto rollover. I was told no.

    I escalated this to a manager, explained my history (over 10 years) and my desire. I was told, “I’m sorry, but perhaps I could choose a less discounted monthly payment plan and then use a card that will expire in the next year.” His thinking was I’d then hear from Sirius for collection when the billing stopped processing at the expiry of my card and have a chance to opt out or re-evaluate. He actually said this to me.

    This was the proposed solution. To apologize for the company, which I appreciated, and then help me beat their system.

    What I was asking for, reasonable time-bound contractual billing, did not exist anymore from Sirius Radio.

    In the age of customer experience and transparency, how does Sirius think that it will not sour large groups of customers who take a moment to ask further details about the billing parameters of its service?

    I guess the answer is that without a clear alternative in their eyes, they may do as they please. This is such a bad, old retail, way of thinking about consumers and assuming their ignorance and / or need for your product will overcome bad experiences and the misalignment of company and consumer interests.

    We live in the abundance economy, during the age of expanding consumer choice. I know Sirius has a monopoly on Howard Stern, but outside of that consumers have many more choices for lightly ad-supported or fully ad-free music.

    A lack of a billing plan that was not overtly focused on maximizing customer value and minimizing breakage did enough to churn me and sour me on Sirius as a whole.

    How does this happen in 2018? I can’t be the only one shaking my head at this. Who’s in charge of the brand over there? Oh, the public company quarterly earnings cycle…. short-term planning and the agency problem rears its head once more. Sadly, this is not unique to them in the grander scheme.

    Stop emailing me and calling me Sirius Radio. It’s over –  and it was definitely you.

    Oh, hello Spotify Premium…

    I can opt out any time? And you integrate with Waze as well? That’s great. We may have just become best friends. Have you met my wallet? How would you like to go out for a seafood dinner? I’m buying.


  • Cryptocurrency Commentary from John Oliver

    Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is one of the smartest and funniest shows on TV.  As a side note, I still do consider it odd that my pal Steve’s overtly confident walk “destabilized” his live performance at the Tower theater in 2015. Moving on…

    The show’s central topic this week was cryptocurrencies. For those who still don’t have your head fully wrapped around crypto, blockchain or Bitcoin, it’s a decent commentary, that also happens to be 25 mins of intelligent-hilarious.

    The best part is the comparison of blockchain’s high level of security to the level of processing that goes into creating a Chicken McNugget. To hack the blockchain is the equivalent of turning a McNugget back into a chicken….

    If you are wondering, I’m long on crypto and blockchain.

    In tandem or utilized individually, they are going to fundamentally change how we live, work and operate as a society over the next few decades. I own some coin and have placed some early stage bets within the space. This is the next wave of the digital revolution.

    If you want to see one of the best write-ups on the technologies and crypto currencies, read this long-form NYT piece. If you want to watch a 90-minute doc on the origins, watch Banking on Bitcoin on Netflix. If you want more John Oliver, Last Week Tonight is Sunday nights on HBO or free on Youtube the following week (which is awesome.)

    Also, if you’d want to see rational utility and/or valuation currently attached to a token or cryptocurrency in the near term… good luck with all that. We’re probably stuck in 1849 for a little bit longer.

  • Work-Life ROI and Career Lifecycles with a Side Order of Jack Mah

    Last night I had a drink with RevZilla employee #17, who’s last day was last Friday. After 8+ years he’s off to find his next mountain to climb. I’m excited for him. Go get ’em, PCB.

    We talked about life, business and what’s next for both of us at a macro and micro level. We also enjoyed reminiscing about the early days of the company and what it was like to invent things on a small team just starting out vs later operating within a larger industry-dominant machine focused on constant expansion and maximizing its lead.

    We both agreed businesses and opportunities have a lifecycle with different rewards and challenges along the way. Sometimes as things progress you need to be aware of the work / life ROI calculator and how it shifts and can differently impact you over time.

    The personal inputs of time, effort and energy go in and hopefully result in meaningful comp, work, learning, growth, relationships and the joy of doing things you’re proud of. As we all progress through our careers, both sides of that equation change due to how we evolve as people and value our personal time while the companies, people and opportunities continue to change around us.

    He also shared with me one of his favorite videos, which I believe captures the spirit of the arc of the stages of many our lives, entrepreneurial or not. It’s an insightful four minutes with the founder / CEO of, Jack Mah. I had not seen this one before.

    Jack speaks to the value of picking someone to follow, focusing on what you are good at and eventually paying it forward. My favorite part, though is when he speaks to “your mistakes as the income or revenue” of the early career effort.

    My favorite quote: “25 years old. Make enough mistakes. Don’t worry. You fall, you stand back up. Enjoy it.”

    When I was 26, about to leave a good career to start RevZilla, knowing the stats of startup survival rate, I asked my father if he thought I was crazy.

    His response, “What’s the worst that can happen? You learn a ton, it doesn’t work, you pick yourself up and go do something else – with that much more experience.”

    At this stage, I’d probably also add, “and make sure that great learning experience doesn’t leave you with crazy debt, though”.

    Regardless, glad that my father, Jack Mah and I are aligned on this one.

  • Cold Feet on Amazon HQ2 Philadelphia

    Earlier this year I was happy to have been asked by the City of Philadelphia to help connect them to fast movers in Seattle in support of their Amazon HQ2 bid. The cross-functional pitch team was doing their own research and recon, which included spending some time on the ground there, hopefully learning more about the Amazon culture and finding some insights which could increase the hometown chances.

    At the time, my thought process surrounding the value of the ‘Zon coming to town was mostly centered on:

      1. The ability of Amazon to attract a different level of tech / digital talent to Philly;
      2. The ability for the companies I’m involved with and others locally to be able to potentially recruit that talent;
      3. The boost to the Philly economy on all fronts and;
      4. Bringing attention and hopefully improvement to Philadelphia’s national brand, which, in my view, is often overly focused on cheese steaks and public altercations involving snowballs, batteries and most recently a horse. The landscape (food, culture, business) has changed in the even the last decade and this town needs to advertise its new position as a city with much to offer to those open to moving.

      In the last six months, however, reading more about Seattle’s current issues and speaking with friends who are current residents, I can’t say that I have not ended up with cold feet on the proposition of “winning” this bid.

      This week Technically Philly ran a piece highlighting the potential upsides and downsides of winning the HQ2 bid, although the author ended up a net positive on the outcome.

      I can’t get there any longer.

      When I think about Philly in its current form, I think of it as an undiscovered gem, with a burgeoning food and cultural scene coupled with a reasonable cost of living that I still consider any startup-up’s first investor.

      The slow and steady organic evolution in the last two decades has added a romance, inclusiveness and kept a “smallness” that we have all been enjoying. I continue to hear visitors remark, “I had no idea this was Philadelphia”. It wasn’t, but it is now. It’s arriving as we speak.

      The word is slowly getting out, and eventually Philly will mature in many ways that other cities already have. In the meantime, I’d hate to see us potentially fracture the magic if we toss Amazon’s 40,000 new six-figure salaries at it and then hope that infrastructure, housing, amenities and even the suburbs can catch up, keep up and stay stable. Rushing the process will likely break a lot of what’s currently great.

      While I will fully agree that Amazon’s immediate impact to the city’s economy, talent pool and national presence will be real and positive, losing the current “small” and accessible elements of Philly will be an immediate loss to what’s finally starting to work so well and evolve.

      And, for those (including me) who are looking for our city to more quickly elevate its brand on the national stage, I’d say we don’t need Amazon HQ2. We just need more Philadelphia evangelists with bigger megaphones and collectively a bit more patience.

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