📗 Amp it up, by Frank Slootman

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Business & leadership books are often full of platitudes you already know. This one is no exception.

However I find many are still worth reading because:

  1. Even though you may know of the advice given, they provide new framings, examples and war stories for this advice. This will help you internalise the advice & communicate it
  2. They can be energising. Watching a Grand Slam final motivates me to play better – next time I play I’ll put in extra effort on my split steps to get a spring on returns. Reading about guys like Slootman who have killed it in business, and have extremely high standards, energises you to be better.

Amp it up also had the benefit of being concise, weighing in at 160 pages.

My notes follow, enjoy!

Frank’s track record

He is the CEO that scaled these companies:

  • Data Domain. Raised $28m bought by EMC for $2.4B in 2009
  • ServiceNow. Raised $6.5m now worth $100B+
  • Snowflake. Market cap > $75B.

I am particularly in awe of Snowflake (I don’t know the others as well) who have managed to build “the” data platform including a marketplace for companies to use each others’ data, all while benefitting from the same computation environment.

I heard about him through the All In pod and then heard a bit of his chat with Jason on This Week In Startups:

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“Come back when you are bursting with excitement about what you are proposing”

Instead of telling people what I think of a proposal, a product, a feature, whatever, I ask them instead what they think. Were they thrilled with it? Absolutely love it? Most of the time I would hear, “It’s okay,” or “It’s not bad.” They would surmise from my facial expression that this wasn’t the answer I was looking for. Come back when you are bursting with excitement about whatever you are proposing to the rest of us./

Look for hunger, increase ownership

I have since always tried to increase our people’s sense of ownership so they will act as owners. That mentality needs to be nurtured.

We don’t always require been‐there, done‐that types. Checking boxes on a resume is easy. Assessing aptitude is harder. Look for hunger, attitude, innate abilities.

Urgency

The mission also has to be treated with urgency. There is a saying in sales that “time kills all deals.” Time is not our friend. Time introduces risks, such as new entrants. The faster we separate from the competition, the more likely we are to succeed. Urgency is a mindset that can be learned if it doesn’t come to you naturally. You can embrace the discomfort that comes with moving faster instead of avoiding it. More pep in our step energizes the workplace culture, making everything seem lighter, quicker, and easier. When everyone on the team embraces urgency, we all move at a similar pace, without being slowed down by distractions.

When there is doubt, there is no doubt

Years ago, I used to hesitate and wait situations out, often trying to fix underperforming people or products instead of pulling the plug. Back then I was seen as a much more reasonable and thoughtful leader—but that didn’t mean I was right. As I got more experience, I realized that I was often just wasting everybody’s time. If we knew that something or someone wasn’t working, why wait? As the saying goes, when there is doubt, there is no doubt

Make employees feel the cool winds of competition

Not everyone has this visceral sense of contest, especially at companies that shield their people from the real stakes at hand. When leaders fail to explain the industry landscape, employees don’t feel the cold winds of competition. Their jobs and paychecks feel secure, but that’s an illusion. Good leaders explain that none of us are ever truly safe in our roles for any length of time. If this fact makes people uncomfortable, that’s good. You need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable because the only alternative is denialism

Execution > strategy

As one of my former bosses observed: “No strategy is better than its execution.”

But those folks actually have it backward. Strategy can’t really be mastered until you know how to execute well. That’s why execution must be your first priority as a leader. Worrying about your organization’s strategy before your team is good at executing is pointless. Execution is hard, and great execution is scarce—which makes it another great source of competitive advantage

Don’t outsource strategy

On having a strategy department or hiring McKinsey to do your strategy:

The people drawing the map will still be very different from the people driving the car, which creates a misalignment of incentives. The operators won’t like simply being told what the strategy is.

Hire drivers not passengers

Years ago, when I was at Data Domain, we adopted a goal for recruiting that we only wanted drivers, not passengers. The slogan was based on a Volkswagen commercial at the time: “On the road of life there are passengers and there are drivers. Drivers wanted.” Passengers are people who don’t mind simply being carried along by the company’s momentum, offering little or no input, seemingly not caring much about the direction chosen by management.

On passengers:

They are often pleasant, get along with everyone, attend meetings promptly, and generally do not stand out as troublemakers. They are often accepted into the fabric of the organization and stay there for many years. The problem is that while passengers can often diagnose and articulate a problem quite well, they have no investment in solving it. They don’t do the heavy lifting. They avoid taking strong positions at the risk of being wrong about something. They can take any side of an issue, depending on how the prevailing winds are blowing.

Passengers are largely dead weight and can be an insidious threat to your culture and performance. They inadvertently undermine the mojo of the organization. They sap the animal instinct and spirits you need in business to thrive.

Drivers:

Drivers, on the other hand, get their satisfaction from making things happen, not blending in with the furniture. They feel a strong sense of ownership for their projects and teams and demand high standards from both themselves and others. They exude energy, urgency, ambition, even boldness. Faced with a challenge, they usually say, “Why not” rather than “That’s impossible.”

We valued traits such as strong task ownership, a sense of urgency, and a “no excuses” mentality. People who get things done rather than explain why they can’t.

Removing passengers in favour of drivers — helps set the culture:

The other advantage of moving fast is that everyone who stays on the bus will know that you’re dead serious about high standards. The good ones will be energized by those standards. If others start looking for greener, less ‐demanding pastures because they don’t want to meet those standards, that’s fine too.

Go direct

This is particularly important as a company gets big:

We have a saying we often repeat at our companies: Go direct. If you have a problem that cuts across departments, figure out who in those other departments can most directly help you address the issue, and reach out without hesitation. Everybody, and we mean everybody, has permission to speak to anybody inside the company, for any reason, regardless of role, rank, or function. We want the organization to run on influence, not rank and title. We want everyone to think of the company as one big team, not a series of competing smaller teams.

No customer success department

In each of his companies Frank incorporated customer success into each division:

Here’s why I was so opposed: If you have a customer success department, that gives everyone else an incentive to stop worrying about how well our customers are thriving with our products and services.

The alternative strategy is to declare and constantly reinforce that customer success is the business of the entire company, not merely one department. This means that when a problem arises, every department has a responsibility to fix it. Everyone’s incentives should be fully aligned with what’s good for our customers. If the basic functions of the company are working properly and are held to account, you won’t need a separate department.

We also moved technical support organizationally under the umbrella of engineering, so they all reported up to the same executive, our head of engineering. It is not desirable in our experience when engineering is removed from, or does not feel the effects of, decisions by tech support.

While technical support owns customer issues, sales own the customer relationship, which cannot be relinquished to a customer success person. Our business is relationship oriented, not deal oriented or transactional. It is important that salespeople do not delegate part of their role to customer success types.

Go big on growth only once you have crossed the chasm

The key thing to remember is that you cannot brute force your way into any market. If you are met with lackluster response in the early going, it’s time to go back to the drawing board, make sense of the feedback, and figure out your next set of moves. Trying to double down or triple down on spending to cross the chasm is a recipe for disaster.

The time to open the floodgates is when you have made it through the chasm and are confident that scaling up sales and marketing will convert a critical mass of new customers. Ironically, so many start‐ups overspend dramatically during the formative stage, but then they’re low on cash when they really need it in the next stage. You’ll know when it’s time to ramp up when customers are virtually ripping the product from your hands. If you feel overwhelmed by demand, you need to mentally adjust to the next stage of development.

Sell to (younger) early-adopters first

The downside of any established market is the friction created when new ways of doing things challenge the comforting traditions that may stretch back for decades. Older, more conservative professionals in any field may fear that an upstart technology will threaten their job security and livelihoods. But more forward‐looking (and often younger) professionals get excited by breakthrough innovation and can’t wait to try it out. That’s what drives the distinction between early adopters and late adopters, explained so brilliantly in Geoffrey Moore’s landmark book, Crossing the Chasm. If you try to sell to both groups the same way, you are very likely to fail. The key strategy is to aim for early adopters first because they (and their companies) are more comfortable with taking a risk on an exciting but still unproven technology. They are also astute evaluators of new technology, eager to change things for the better and then show off to their peers how cutting‐edge they are.

The definition of crossing the chasm is building a beachhead of satisfied early adopters, who can then be used as examples to reassure late adopters.

GG Gartner

Gartner Group was hosting so‐called fireside chats during our IPO roadshow, telling investors that our entire addressable market totaled just $1.5 billion. That was very frustrating—how could anyone expect a company to trade at a valuation larger than its entire market? I can only chuckle in retrospect, after ServiceNow became one of the largest, fastest‐growing software companies in history, with a market capitalization well over $100 billion. This is why you should never put too much stock in the opinions of pundits

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