When we were small: Under Armour

Kevin Plank, CEO and Founder of Under Armour, on how the company was named:

My next idea was Body Armor, and I thought that was the perfect name. Back then, it took a couple weeks for the trademark process, and by the time those two weeks had gone by, I had told everybody I was going to name my company Body Armor.

One morning, I got a call from my friend saying we would never get Body Armor, because there were some body shops up in New Jersey and some ballistic vest manufacturers all named Body Armor. I was a bit dejected, but I had lunch plans that afternoon with my oldest brother, Bill. So, I show up to pick him up, knock on the door, and he looks down at me the way only an older brother can look at a younger brother, and he asks, “How’s that company you’re working on, uhh…Under Armor?”

Whether he was just messing with his younger brother or whether he was intentional with it, it doesn’t matter at this point. I cancelled lunch, went back to grandma’s house in Georgetown, filled out the paperwork, sent it to the patent and trademark office, and three weeks later, we were clean and clear.

Oh, and the reason we added the U in Armour is that I was skeptical at the time about whether this whole Internet thing would stick. So I thought the phone number 888-4ARMOUR was much more compelling than 888-44ARMOR. I wish there was a little more science or an entire marketing study behind it, but it was that simple.

Fun story. The entire article is a great glimpse into one of my favorite companies. Looking at today’s sports apparel market, it is hard to imagine a world with just basic cotton t-shirts and gear. What Plank and Under Armour did completely disrupted the entire industry and sent athletic giants like Nike and Adidas back to the drawing board.

Disruption by design

Todd Olson, writing on Medium:

The idea of disruptive technology has been with us since Clayton Christensen released The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997. Since then, we have seen not only major companies disrupted, but entire industries. We have observed incredible disruption in a very short time, but can we learn from this history how to reliably cause disruption? In this regard, I want to examine the premise that:

It is design innovation – not technological innovation – that causes disruption.

Bits of Delight

Ryan Hoover, Founder of Product Hunt:

Someone at the CMX Summit asked me how we measure the effectiveness of these efforts. It’s hard to quantify but we know these bits of delight have helped cultivate a loyal community of people who have hunted great products and given us great ideas. These small things are important and regardless of its “ROI”, we’ll continue to try to delight those that (quite literally) make Product Hunt.

I love this idea. Yes, you can’t quantify these moments of delight but they can have a profound impact on your business, your culture and how your company is viewed by the world. Being special in your business doesn’t have to be a huge thing. It can be something small like this, but even these small gestures of delight can add up to something great.

Mean People Fail

Paul Graham:

Why? I think there are several reasons. One is that being mean makes you stupid. That’s why I hate fights. You never do your best work in a fight, because fights are not sufficiently general. Winning is always a function of the situation and the people involved. You don’t win fights by thinking of big ideas but by thinking of tricks that work in one particular case. And yet fighting is just as much work as thinking about real problems. Which is particularly painful to someone who cares how their brain is used: your brain goes fast but you get nowhere, like a car spinning its wheels.

Startups don’t win by attacking. They win by transcending. There are exceptions of course, but usually the way to win is to race ahead, not to stop and fight.

Fireside

In the years following the stock market crash of 1929 and during the course of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a series of radio addresses that became known as “fireside chats.” The goals of these chats were to inform and convince the American public about various concerns of the day, new government policies and the direction of the country during an extremely difficult period of history. After Roosevelt, the radio addresses were not as prevalent or frequent until 1982 when Ronald Reagan began the longstanding practice of a weekly Presidential radio address that is continued today.

The history lesson is an important reminder, but it isn’t the moral of the story. What is the goal of a radio address or fireside chat? It was a time for everyone (with access to a radio) to listen directly to the President discussing the topics of the day. An open and candid conversation1with all interested parties. We can apply this same concept to the way we work with our teams and in our company.

Several times per year, and usually in 8-10 week intervals, we gather the entire company — in-person and over video chat — to participate in company-wide fireside chats. In larger companies I’ve worked with in the past, these events are labeled as ‘all-hands’ meetings, ‘town halls’ or some other corporate name. We use the term fireside chats. We put a digital fireplace up on the television and talk about everything important to the company.

The content and direction of these chats vary. Often times, there is a new direction in the company, a new venture, a new major client or just some big news. These chats are more one-sided as we explore the vision and ideas behind a new direction. Other times, the chats are a conversation. We’ll email the team a list of questions or topics a few days before the chat, and open it up to the floor. Company news, updates and general questions often follow regardless of the opening format.

The importance of the fireside chats can’t be underestimated. We’re all incredibly busy. We’re building a business, growing steadily and forging ahead into new territories daily. The chats give us a time to — even for a few hours — work on the business instead of always working in the business. Or, put differently, we’re working on our company rather than working on our business.

Working in the business is easy: we plan, design, develop, measure and iterate on software. This is what everyone in the company is good at. This is why we’re here. There are millions of tiny details we can choose to focus on every day. We can busy ourselves with these details and get lost in their mix incredibly easy. If we’re not careful, we wake up months (or years) later and wonder why our business is where it is. It is incredibly difficult to focus on the big picture, and overall company direction when we’re in the weeds.

By focusing during the fireside chats, and the preparation in advance, we force ourselves to focus on where the company is going. Where do we want to be? Can we clearly articulate to ourselves and the entire team what our goals are? What defines success for our business? How do we align everyone with a common goal and direction so we can achieve success?

Yes, these are all-hands meetings. Yes, they take up precious time when we could be building software. That’s exactly the point. If we don’t know what we’re building towards, what things are the most important and what defines success then we’re not aligned and moving towards a consistent vision as a company.

Comparing the day-to-day operations of a small business to the country’s economy as a whole during the Great Depression can be seen as a bit of a stretch. However, it does illustrate the extreme ends of the challenge of unity, alignment and belief in a common goal. Clear articulation of vision, open-communication and focusing ourselves on the bigger picture aren’t lofty goals. Whether it be for a business or an entire country, when we’re working together on a consistent vision, the future is brighter for us all.

  1. “Conversation” is a stretch. These were one-sided radio addresses.

The Cult of Busy

Dina Kaplin hits the nail on the head:

Busy can become a way of life. We’re seduced by all the incoming - the emails and text messages that make us feel wanted and important - stimulating our dopamine, as research shows, but in an exhausting, ultimately empty way. Busy has a dangerous allure. If your normal is busy, it’s tough to sit quietly with your thoughts or to really feel what you’re feeling. What if, instead, everything became a choice - how we spend time, who we respond to and how much or little we write? What if we recognized the difference between accomplishing our goals for the day and responding to other people’s requests? What if we learned to say no - a lot?

One of the things that bugs me most about this so-called “Cult of Busy” is that it is a built-in excuse for inaction. Why didn’t we find an obvious bug before launch? Why didn’t we mentor someone on our team? Why haven’t we filled that open position we all know we need? All of the answers to these questions can easily be: we were too busy. If something is a priority, it will get done, regardless of our state of busy.

In other words: when someone says they didn’t do something because they were busy, I hear “it isn’t a priority.” Sometimes that’s ok, but let’s at least call it what it is.

Imagine asking “How are you?” to one of the most successful people you know or, say, Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg or Warren Buffet. I’ve never heard anyone at that level respond, “busy.” By most people’s definition they are, constantly making high-level strategic decisions with a large impact.

Most of the people in my personal life have no idea what I do for a living. They think I just work “in computers.” Therefore, my default answer to “how’s work?” is more often than not: “busy.” I’m selling myself and my amazing company short when I use this generic default answer. Busy should be implied. How is my work? The answer: it’s great. We’re growing, doing amazing work, breaking new ground and building a fantastic company culture of results. That sounds way more fun than just “busy.”

A Free and Open Internet

President Obama:

An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.

I find it hard to believe that anyone disagrees with this.

So the time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do. To do that, I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act — while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services. This is a basic acknowledgment of the services ISPs provide to American homes and businesses, and the straightforward obligations necessary to ensure the network works for everyone — not just one or two companies.

Politics aside, the Internet should not be controlled by a few companies imposing their will on the people. Here’s hoping the President’s efforts continue and this is ultimately implemented in policy.

Paternity Leave: The Rewards and the Remaining Stigma

Claire Cain Miller, in this Sunday’s New York Times, writing about paternity leave, and the associated stigma:

Social scientists who study families and work say that men like Mr. Bedrick, who take an early hands-on role in their children’s lives, are likely to be more involved for years to come and that their children will be healthier. Even their wives could benefit, as women whose husbands take paternity leave have increased career earnings and have a decreased chance of depression in the nine months after childbirth. But researchers also have a more ominous message.

Sounds like everyone wins, so why is this not more prevalent a practice in all companies?

Taking time off for family obligations, including paternity leave, could have long-term negative effects on a man’s career - like lower pay or being passed over for promotions.

It’s true, but it shouldn’t be. There are plenty of companies out there that support people who choose to have families. As society evolves, here’s hoping these companies become the norm, not the exception.

The Job of Leadership

Another good one from Ev Williams, on Inside Medium:

The job of leadership is to foster alignment and enthusiasm toward the right goal.

Alignment: A collection of good people does not make a good team if they’re not pushing in the same direction. Constant communication and adjustment is needed.

Enthusiasm: You’re doing something hard and against the odds. The only way to do this type of thing is to have a (realistic) positive attitude and inspire confidence.

The right goal: Where are we going? Is it big enough, but accomplishable? Is it still correct based on current data? How do we know if we’re making progress? These are questions you must constantly ask.

Why People Leave

The First Round Review, in an interview with Carly Guthrie, an HR and operations veteran:

People do better work when they have lives of their own. “That’s not always a popular opinion, but I’ve seen how true it is over and over again,” says Guthrie. “It’s not just people with kids or spouses. Everybody has a community outside of the office. So few employers respect that – if you make it a point to, that will bind your employees closer to you.”

Some companies are beginning to take these best practices a step further and mandate one or two weeks of vacation time without access to company email or tools. That’s right, literally turn their email off for the duration of their vacation.

This whole article is a great summary of the reasons people leave a company and tips for preventing these common reasons. However, while benefits and work-from-home policies are important, this bit about confidence in leadership is especially accurate:

There’s a persistent trope in the HR world that the main reason people leave is because they don’t get along with their manager. Despite its prevalence in the corporate zeitgeist, “That’s actually pretty rare,” says Guthrie. Generally, almost everyone gets a sense of mismatched chemistry during the hiring process. If someone leaves because of their boss, that’s a failure in the company’s hiring process – an employee didn’t get enough exposure to their boss during the process, or alternatively, if there’s a history of subordinates leaving, their boss was the bad hire in the first place.

There is, however, one big reason employees may leave on account of their manager: Loss of confidence – in them or the company. “Let’s say you’ve had a couple of pivots and you just don’t believe in the company or concept anymore. You lose confidence in the marketability or leadership,” says Guthrie. A company’s leadership needs to be aware of these potential undercurrents in their organization, and should deal with them head on. Otherwise, your best and brightest will be on the lookout for opportunities to jump ship.

Spot on.

Repurposing the Titanic

Justin Williams, on what he’s learned from Glassboard:

Building products with a bootstrapped mentality is completely different than a startup mentality. When bootstrapped, every decision you make affects the bottom line, and that is a bottom line you care about from day one. Trying to convert a platform that wasn’t designed with that in mind proved to be too great of a challenge for me as the sole proprietor of Glassboard. Rather than focusing on improving the core Glassboard product, I spent most of my time trying to cut costs where possible to curb our losses.

#define CTO

Greg Brockman, CTO at Stripe, on his role and focus:

Around last summer, to keep up with the needs of our engineering team, I started doing 1:1s with everyone. I would stack them all on a Tuesday, and be completely burned out by the end of the day. By the time I was recharged and productive again, it’d be next Tuesday, and it’d be time to do it all over again.

Through this time, I knew I was faced with a choice: the technical route or the people route. I’ve never found anything I loved more than writing code, but at the same time I knew we had a responsibility as an organization to support the amazing people we’d hired.

This entire piece is fantastic, and it is an incredibly accurate portrayal of how many engineers-turned-leaders evolve throughout their careers.

Why the Company's Success Should be Your Focus

Ev Williams, in an internal memo to Medium employees:

This is a startup. That’s a bit of a loaded word these days - and a confusing one. What I mean is simply this: Our business is not sustainable yet. We are not simply trying to grow something or optimize something, we’re trying to jump-start an engine of growth and goodness from scratch.

Our success is not guaranteed. In fact, statistically speaking, it’s unlikely. As cliche as it sounds, we really are all in this together. There is no room for ego battles, infighting, or putting one’s own interests ahead of the group’s. In fact:

Your interests are the group’s.

Extremely well said. This attitude shows up in the great work the company puts out. And, here’s one of my favorite parts:

Don’t focus on your status, role, or rank. Humans are wired to compare themselves to those around them. But where you are on the “holarchy” is not a reflection of contribution, and everyone knows that. Be defined by how much you help, not your title.

It’s not about you, it’s about the team.

The Minimum Vacation Policy

Cameron Moll:

When I hired my first full-time employee two years ago, we immediately began an unlimited vacation policy. In addition to the 12 days per year that we observe for national holidays, each of us was free to take off as much time as desired, so long as the work that needed to get done got done.

What I’ve turned my attention to recently is a “minimum vacation policy” for lack of a better phrase. In lieu of unlimited vacation, and in contrast to traditional vacation policies which focus on maximum days off, I’m intrigued by idea of requiring employees to expend a minimum number of vacation days each year to ensure their working (and personal) health remains strong.

Vacation policies are surprisingly difficult to design. I’ve long been a fan of the so-called “unlimited vacation” policy, but have also seen many issues with it in practice. Some, although very few, people take advantage and take entirely too much time off in relation to their workload. This is easily fixed with a conversation, as typically the person’s actions were not intentional and certainly not a result of malice.

The larger issue I’ve seen is the same as Moll: the best people and top performers in the company do not take nearly enough time off. They do fantastic work, but they work too much. They enjoy contributing at a high-level and see vacation time as a weakness of sorts. (I don’t agree.) You’ll often hear them say “I just don’t like being away from the office” or “I’ll take some time off after X.”

We’ve tried strongly encouraging vacations, and even tried flat out forcing someone to leave for a few weeks after a big project or milestone. Every time they come back refreshed and better than when they left.

There is also an interesting psychology with limited vacation time: If someone feels like they are going to “lose” the time by not taking it, they seem to be more willing to take that time off even when they don’t think they need the time for fear of leaving something on the table. (You’ve probably heard people saying in December: “I need to take Friday off or I’ll lose the time.”) With the unlimited vacation policy, there isn’t a lingering “expiration” of this time so it becomes forgotten and ignored.

I like the idea of a Minimum Vacation Policy. It certainly could be an interesting way to solve some of the common issues with vacation time. I’ll be curious to see how it works out for Cameron.

The Internet's Original Sin

I have come to believe that advertising is the original sin of the web. The fallen state of our Internet is a direct, if unintentional, consequence of choosing advertising as the default model to support online content and services. Through successive rounds of innovation and investor storytime, we’ve trained Internet users to expect that everything they say and do online will be aggregated into profiles (which they cannot review, challenge, or change) that shape both what ads and what content they see. Outrage over experimental manipulation of these profiles by social networks and dating companies has led to heated debates amongst the technologically savvy, but hasn’t shrunk the user bases of these services, as users now accept that this sort of manipulation is an integral part of the online experience.

The Mediocrity Magnet

Creating special work is difficult. Special work requires extra drive, effort and fortitude. But there is an unseen force inside every one of us that drives us away from greatness, away from something exceptional and away from special work. I like to call this invisible force “The Mediocrity Magnet.” This magnet is constantly pulling on us as we try and create something new. It is pulling us away from the exceptional, and back towards our normal default of comfortable decisions, stagnant innovation and the desire to fit in with those around us.

Creating exceptional software is especially hard. Design, engineering and product leadership all have to be working at a consistently high level. The Magnet may be invisible, but it isn’t hard to see. It can start with simple corner-cutting like, “we’ll figure out a better way to do this in v2,” or “this is super hacky, but it works” or more commonly “let’s just use what those guys did and that should be fine.” Fine. It sounds like a reasonable goal, and sometimes it may be. But exceptional software is created by resisting this force, and not settling for “fine” or good enough.

The main goal of a product lead, especially in software, is to be a constant force against the Magnet. When immersed in a text editor or Photoshop, developers and designers can easily get lost in the mix of the nitty-gritty details of a product. The details are incredibly important. But product leadership needs to rise above the details and understand what is truly great and what simply meets expectations. A product lead needs to constantly rebel against the pull towards normal to keep everyone working towards something great.

How do we fight this Magnet of Mediocrity? How do we keep ourselves from settling for “fine” as we make decisions about a product’s future? The answer is to constantly ask questions.

How can this be better?

What are we not thinking of?

What can we strip away to get to the core of the problem, while surprising and delighting our customers?

And, most importantly:

What about this product is special?

Special is not doing things the way everyone else has done them. Special is not accepting the norm. Special is taking the long route, but hopefully the one that is most rewarding in the end. If we’re constantly asking ourselves and our teams “what is special” about what we’re doing, we can fight the Mediocrity Magnet that pulls us all away from our real goal: special work.

Why Good Storytelling Helps You Design Great Products

Braden Kowitz, from Google Ventures:

I’ve observed that teams often like to walk through UI designs as they would a blueprint – showing where each element belongs on the plan. Each screen shows how the product might look in a different situation, but the screens are not connected in any way. The problem is that when designs are presented this way, you’re only building an understanding of how the product looks. You’re not focusing on how the product works, and you’re not simulating how customers interact with it. So when teams critique designs as blueprints, it severely limits their ability to reason through the interactivity of the product.

The best product designers practice story-centered design. They begin by crafting stories that show how customers interact with a product, and only after they’ve accomplished that do they design screens as a way to tell that story of interaction.

The New Boss

Blake Griffin, writing in Derek Jeter’s new venture, The Players’ Tribune:

Ballmer wants to win no matter the cost. Donald Sterling didn’t care if we won – at least if it meant he had to spend money. It wasn’t just about spending money on players. For years, our training staff wanted to buy this sophisticated computer software that would let them scan our bodies and keep track of our progress throughout the season. Sterling wouldn’t sign off on it.

When I walked into the training facility for the first time this summer, the entire vibe was different. People were smiling. From the security people to the game operations staff to the office staff, everybody seemed happy to be there. For the first time ever, they were on permanent contracts. Under Sterling, all the staff were on temporary contracts. Top to bottom, everybody just appreciates being appreciated now.

When I walked into the trainer’s room, the staff was going crazy. They showed me the new body scanning software. Ballmer signed off on it Day 1.

First, The Players’ Tribune is a fantastic site. They are about 4 articles in, and already it is must read for any sports fan. The site is extremely well done, well designed and carefully edited.

Second, Steve Ballmer is going to be a fantastic NBA owner. Clearly he understands how to make everyone feel respected, whether they are the star player or a security guard.

To Siri, With Love

Lovely piece in this Sunday’s New York Times:

For most of us, Siri is merely a momentary diversion. But for some, it’s more. My son’s practice conversation with Siri is translating into more facility with actual humans. Yesterday I had the longest conversation with him that I’ve ever had. Admittedly, it was about different species of turtles and whether I preferred the red-eared slider to the diamond-backed terrapin. This might not have been my choice of topic, but it was back and forth, and it followed a logical trajectory. I can promise you that for most of my beautiful son’s 13 years of existence, that has not been the case.

Start-ups versus Big Companies

Julie Zhuo, on Medium:

[Start-ups] need people who:

operate with good intuition. There’s simply not enough time, money, or people at a start-up to invest in a bunch of research or data-gathering. Good product and people intuitions are what lead to successful outcomes in the arena of high-risk plays.

are well-rounded, jack-of-all-trades. It’s more important to have something be functional and done quickly than it is to be done in the most scalable and robust way. That’s why people who can jump into any number of problems and Mcgyver it are so highly valued at start-ups. Practicality matters; specialists and sticklers for perfection need not apply.

are proactive and don’t mind ambiguity. If you’re looking for someone to give you mentorship, training, or a structured environment in which to learn and grow, working at a start-up is going to be frustrating because those are not going to be priorities for the company.

possess a healthy dose of optimism. You have to believe what you’re doing is valuable in order for it to actually be valuable. If you don’t feel that optimism but find yourself attracted to the idea of a start-up for other reasons fortune or fame or freedom there are other, more certain routes to achieve those goals.

Spot on. All of these also apply for building a start-up team within an established company.

Also, “big” companies aren’t all that bad. There are trade-offs for sure, but no company is completely perfect or terrible, regardless of size.