Yesterday I was involved in the launch of Lunchbox, a startup that I have invested in and have high hopes for.
Prior to launch, Lunchbox had signed up about 3000 interested and beta users, which gave us a nice, initial channel to look for our first paid signup. So the Lunchbox team pulled the trigger, made the site live and we proceeded to anxiously wait for that first sale & the first Dollar of revenue.
The wait lasted for 63 minutes before Lunchbox made its first sale and during that wait, I was reminded how exhilarating, fun and stressful the launch of a new startup is.
Experiencing those emotions over again, made me reminisce about the very first Dollar that WooThemes made all those years ago. And whilst we've made lots of money since, that first sale & first Dollar will always stand out as the tipping point of great things to come.
It is for this very reason that I plan to continue my involvement with startups indefinitely and why I will also eventually do my own Startup #2, #3 & #10. The lure & absolute exhilaration of that first Dollar being generated by a new idea is simply too big too resist.
“These days, my idea of success is a well-managed balance between time with people I love and a project I'm deeply passionate about. Right now, that's Campaign Monitor. Time spent with each one of these has a huge impact on how much I enjoy the other. When I get that balance right, I'm at my happiest. And in the end, isn't that what success is all about?”
So if balance = happiness = success, why then are we always chasing the next thing? I can admit that this is something that I struggle with quite often, regardless of the countless blessings & awesomeness I have in my life.
My passion & ambition mostly relates to professional dreams & goals, which tends to be longer term in nature. This makes it very tempting for me to allow that burning fire to simply consume all other aspects of my life.
I've however actively countered this and by finding neutrality in the moments, where these characteristics & thoughts are the last thing on my mind. Time spent with my wife & my son have been the easiest moments to just fully immerse myself into and I've been trying to apply the same mindset to time spent with friends / family or time spent practicing whatever hobby. (Something evidenced in my Instagram feed.)
It's been hard work and a very active & conscious decision to pursue a balance that makes sense to me & my family. Slowly but surely though, I'm finding myself in a much better space, where these things are become more natural and easier.
This has been bugging me for ages now… Every time that we announce a promotion with a discount or sale of some kind on WooThemes, we get loads of e-mails like this:
I just purchased Product X at full price 2 weeks ago. Now I see you have a sale going on. If I had known, I would've waited to purchase it now instead. Can you refund the difference on that product?
So, we end up retroactively issuing partial discounts, because we choose to deliver the best possible customer experience. But I have a very different opinion about this…
If you purchased something for $100 last week, you did so because you believed that it was worth $100 to you. If it wasn't, you would not have spent the money. So yes, it sucks when you see the same product on sale a week later, but such is life. The important factor is that the value proposition hasn't changed though; even when buying the product at a discounted price, you still receive $100 in value.
I've come to the conclusion that some good things in business are totally unanticipated & even more so - unexpected.
Regardless of how big my ego is and how I rate myself as a strategist, visionary & leader within my company, some things are the results of the unknown and not my (or anyone on my team's) doing. At least not consciously.
Here's an example:
Two weeks ago we switched WooThemes' support helpdesk to use Zendesk instead. Within a week, our support numbers, capacity & performance were under control (in stark contrast to previous months where we struggled to maintain things sustainably).
Having investigated this and having accounted for all of the quantifiable variables (i.e. has the number of support tickets created by customers dropped?), I can say that everything is pretty much 99% the same. So whilst there's obvious advantages that we've gained from switching to Zendesk (if they weren't there, we would not have switched), there's nothing obvious to account for this sudden and significant change.
My point here is: a) yes, we made the decision to switch our helpdesk platform; and b) we obviously anticipated - and hoped for - an improvement; but c) the extend to which things have improved has been completely unexpected.
So whilst I'd love to give myself kudos as a CEO's job well-done, I'm cautious to take credit for the things that I can't quantify and that I never planned for.
This experience got me thinking about this quote that a friend mentioned to me in discussion the other day:
“Strategy isn't always about what you do. Sometimes strategy is all about what you don't do.”
As entrepreneurs & business owners, we're epitomise the DIY approach of getting things done, making our own rules and creating our own reality in the process. To reward ourselves, we pat ourselves on the back when things work out, because that success can be directly attributed back to our efforts.
I most certainly do. Heck, I'm quite anal & controlling about many things in my business and as such, I try influence most of our activities (sometimes over-doing that too). So when things are going well, I want the credit.
What this recent experience taught me though, is that I'm only the curator of a framework, within which awesome things can happen. Some results - good and bad - will always be unexpected, unanticipated and frankly unwanted.
My challenge as a curator thus is to ensure that 51% of all things that happen within this framework leads to a positive result.
This morning whilst washing the office's dishes (which have piled up significantly, since our cleaning lady is still on leave after the holidays), I was reminded of how seemingly insignificant obstacles sometimes result in more significant consequences. 
As CEO, I don't necessarily think that washing dishes is part of my “job description” and it doesn't carry any obvious priority in terms of things I need to get done today. Similarly, I could have just asked / commanded anyone in the office to get it done and that would be totally acceptable.
I mean, I am the CEO. Right?
I don't share this view though. My job (as CEO / Co-Founder / insert whatever “important” title here) isn't always glamorous and neither can I describe all my tasks with fancy corporate words like strategizing, business development or leveraging synergies. Instead, sometimes the best thing I can do in my business is the smallest, simplest thing; especially if that means I can remove obstacles for my team.
If I can spend 15 minutes removing an obstacle for my team and the rest of the team can cumulatively save a hour in happiness & subsequent productivity, then I'm winning, they're winning and WooThemes is winning.
Cleaning the dishes is insignificant, but if that means that everyone in the office can enjoy breakfast and a cup of coffee without having to clean dishes beforehand, then I've done my job well.
 This post is obviously not about washing dishes or me washing the dishes. ;)
One of my biggest challenges at WooThemes in the past year has been to become more data-driven in everything we do and especially with regards to our decision-making. Analytics & measurement isn't something which we've historically done well, so I emphasized that this was something we needed to learn about in 2012.
This “need” was mostly fueled by the growing pains that we experienced in the last 12 months. We found ourselves in a space where we needed to accelerate the scaling of our team and - at the same time - we needed to optimize our existing structures & processes.
We found ourselves in the middle of a contradiction between revenue & longer-term strategy too; whilst the actual dollars pushed us in one direction, we needed to pay royalties to our past and also to the bigger (future) picture.
We had sometimes burnt our fingers trusting our intuition in the past and we wanted to be more lean in the way we approached future growth. We wanted to avoid making the same mistakes and (for example) over-investing in new projects / revenue channels.
I thought that data would help us navigate a potentially slippery slope and we subsequently used data to pre-validate every potential decision we made. Much to our own detriment.
The problem was that in some instances the data view was a 100% contradiction of our gut feeling, our passion. And moving forward based on that intuition was something that had been ingrained into our DNA over the years.
In an article I wrote earlier this week, I said: “The reality is that a reflection on those successes would’ve probably given me just as much experiential learning as that from failure.”.
In the context of making a decision based on data or intuition, I should've picked the latter, as that's what has made us successful for the past 5 years. This would've helped us double-down on the way we best knew how to grow WooThemes.
If it wasn't broken, why were trying to fix it?
I guess part of it is being pulled into the hype of using data measurement & analytics to be a successful, online company.
The primary driver however was the ambition to be better and using data to move from point A to point B. The mistake I made though was trying to change our DNA instead of just influencing the results of that DNA.
I believe that the recent attention that startups, angel investing & crowdfunding (Kickstarting?) have received has been fantastic for entrepreneurs worldwide. This attention highlighted the opportunities that does exist and the gaps that entrepreneurs could plug, which in turn has seen more entrepreneurs coming to the fore.
But maybe we got swept up in all of that romanticism about raising money, failure & pivoting along the way? Maybe we've lost focus on the things that are really important when building a business?
Beyond this, I was lured into the romanticism of angel investing (from which I learnt so many lessons, but that's for another post) and got (actively) involved in one of these startups that almost saw me leaving WooThemes. After I decided not to pursue that opportunity, I helped to oversee a massive scaling & growth effort at Woo in the second part of 2012.
The thing about many of my experiences & subsequent decisions this year, was that I had to go through those experiences to make the decisions. I guess this would come down to failing / making mistakes in an effort to learn in a “you have to break a few eggs to bake a cake”-way.
2012 has been a year of learning for me, partly because of the past mistakes that I've overseen. Today, I'm a better individual, man, husband, dad & entrepreneur as a result of that.
When I reflect on the past year though, I know in my heart that I could've avoided so many of the mistakes I had made. And I could've still had the benefit of the learning experience.
Just because I learnt something from a mistake, doesn't mean that, that was the only way to learn that lesson:
Maybe I only had to make 1 or 2 angel investments (and not 5) to learn what I did?
Had I addressed core issues in the way I think / work / live before I had a son of my own, I would've been the dad I wanted to be from day one?
If we had followed “Scaling 101: The Best Practice to Scaling Any Company” at WooThemes, then maybe the last 6 months would not have been as challenging?
I don't know.
What I do know though is that failure is massively overrated today; especially in our current startup climate, where it's the norm to fail, pivot, fail & pivot again. My perception is that we've given failure such value on an entrepreneur's CV that it almost overshadows the minor victories & successes.
Are we saying that an entrepreneur that has failed & “learnt from his / her mistake” is better off than the entrepreneur that avoided making that mistake (albeit having a bit of luck)?
Similarly - failure is no precursor for future success. As an entrepreneur, just because I've multiple mistakes (and perhaps I'm battle-hardened as a result), I don't think I'm more (or less for that matter) likely to succeed in my next project or startup. Yes - I have a better point of reference due to past experience, which will help me avoid obvious pitfalls or at least spot stumbling blocks before they're critical. But this is no guarantee that I'll be successful, which means that past failure has very limited value (at the very least in terms of the potential reward thereof).
Learning from mistakes are easy, because they probably hurt us in some way. We got burnt and that literally drove the conclusion home.
“Only a fool runs into the same brickwall twice, expecting a different result.”
But I've also learnt from all the right decisions & victories; I just haven't been as focused about them. I think I've always just taken the victories in my (slightly-arrogant) stride in a way of saying “well, that was expected”.
The reality is that a reflection on those successes would've probably given me just as much experiential learning as that from failure.
We live in a time where we are always trying to work more, be more efficient, increase our productivity. We strive to do more, so we get involved in more projects & take on tasks & To Do's that aren't that important.
Heck, everyone has a side-project these days.
I guess we've become so used to diversification. “Don't put your eggs into one basket.” says your investment manager. So instead of putting more money into AAPL (which has made you good money until now), you find lesser stocks just for the sake of diversification.
This works for financial investments, but not for investments of your time.
In the past 2 years, I've made this mistake twice.
First up, I decided that it would be a good idea to diversify my interest (both financial & personal / passion) in WooThemes by creating a new entity, Radiiate (R.I.P.). I wanted it to be an incubator for my other ideas and had a bit of spare cash to invest into that pursuit. I couldn't keep up though and the mental drain I experienced was just too great. I lost $250k instead.
Then, in the last couple of years at WooThemes, we've become really good at saying “Yes!” to new ideas / feature requests and generally just doing more. We justified it by saying that people wanted these things and we would be able to diversify our interests (I mean - things might just tank one day). This however created such a burden & financial overhead (supporting legacy products that never amounted to much), which has meant that it's taken quite a few months to cleanse ourselves of that baggage and the bad habits it installed.
The thing is that focus trumps most things in any given situation. We may think we're good at multi-tasking, but it will never be as efficient / productive / successful as it could be when you focus on doing just one thing. When you're clear about what you're working on & what you're working towards, it becomes exponentially simpler to execute on your vision & plan.
This mindset also has an interesting application within WooThemes: It's the nature of our business to have multiple products, so we won't ever just have the one product. But we have however changed our strategy to double-down on the products & revenue channels where we see most traction & growth. So instead of creating more, we're just doing more with what we already have.
Avoid the “Jack of all trades, Master of none.”-mantra, as this not only defocuses & complicates your execution, but it most definitely decreases the quality of your work / products / services.
A few recent happenings has gotten me thinking about my initial motivation to switch my blog to Svbtle a couple of months ago. On the surface this would seem to be an odd decision on my part, considering that I'm CEO of one of the biggest WordPress product companies around and a switch of platform (away from WordPress) wouldn't make loads of sense.
I first fell in love with Svbtle when Dustin first previewed the UI, which I felt would be perfectly suited to clutter-free idea generation & writing (something which WordPress isn't doing so well these days).
But most importantly, I wanted into Svbtle because of the exclusivity. The fact that Svbtle was invite-only made we want into the action so badly. I wanted to be part of the crowd where the cool kids hung out.
To me that suggests that there were others that loved the look of what Svbtle was, but hated being on the outside of the walled garden.
Exclusivity breeds demand.
Consider all of the material stuff that you'd like to own; most of those things are likely either high value items (that most of us will never be able to afford) and / or are highly exclusive.
This applies even more-so to experiences. Want to see the SuperBowl live? Well, only a finite number of people will be able to do that every year. Want to go to space? Sure - maybe when it's affordable in 2085.
The exclusivity and lack of availability / accessibility doesn't however deter our want or need for these things. Instead it has the contrary influence and I believe that this just makes us want it even more.
Maybe it's partly down to us being jealous and we want to keep up with the Joneses. Maybe it's ambition and we're simply striving towards that next goal.
Regardless though, if you want someone to buy something you're selling, don't make it easy for them to get. :)
Looking at Svbtle and the exclusivity that surrounds it, I can draw many comparisons to the person who I perceive Svbtle-creator, Dustin Curtis, to be.
This isn't saying much of course, as I've not met Dustin in person. But for most other people that I'd like to know about, I can find much more than this online.
Yet I hold Dustin in the highest regard. I think he's a super-talented designer and that he's a thought-leader. He's very mysterious and obviously has loads of self-confidence (which borders on arrogance, which I love).
But I can't really proof any of this.
That's exactly the point though: similar to the exclusivity of a product / service, Dustin Curtis has put himself out there just enough to intrigue others. I know that I'm unlikely to ever work with Dustin, but I have this belief that he'd be an awesome person to work with / have on my team.