What I'm Reading
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Tuesday, January 15. 2013
This is a continuation of my long running self-documenting history of my journey as a founder attempting to transform an idea into a real-life product. One the previous episode entitled, "Winter Is Coming," we went through a storm which almost wiped out my team, but we emerged from it stronger than ever.
I've gotten a lot of pity comments from my last blog posting, and a lot of questions if I'm mad about the situation. I say this with utmost sincerity, I am not mad at all. On the contrary, I think it's a great story of redemption. I've told my management chain, that I have learned more this year than my entire career with the company. My outlook on this is: it's better to learn all this stuff now, so when I start my next big idea, I'll be ready for bigger challenges. I'm not looking for pity, I'm just writing this down so the next time this happens, I recover faster. I feel it's important to remember the good times and the bad times.
One More Battle Before Winter
The team's morale was on the rise after our successful user experience testing in November. Some of my greatest opponents had also switched sides and started backing us again. As we entered December, we had the company Christmas Party which was a welcome distraction from reality, and an opportunity to celebrate what we had accomplished thus far, we were feeling pretty good. Nevertheless, I intended to leverage this high morale for one last battle before we all left for Christmas Vacation; the goal was to secure a second round of funding for our product. If we didn't pursue funding in December, it would take a while to get everyone back up to speed after vacation, and audiences to the higher ups would be harder to get. We had two weeks to put together a new pitch.
We immediately booked an audience with a committee that the King (who reports to the CEO), and all of his top advisors and lieutenants sit on. Rule number one about presentations, know your audience. So, we met with some committee members who we had built relationships with; the goal was to judge the political climate in that committee. Unfortunately the week before, some team got absolutely destroyed in their presentation because they launched something without anyone on the committee knowing, and some heads rolled. Teams going in to present would be scrutinized much more as a result.
My product manager bumped into The King in the elevator, and decided to give an elevator pitch of our idea. While I appreciated the zeal behind the idea, it didn't really work out because the delivery of the pitch wasn't very polished at this point. The King got confused and didn't really understand the value proposition, and brushed off the idea as, meh that sounds pretty obvious to me. When my product manager told me what had happened, I asked, did you show a demo of the product on the mobile phone? The answer was no, and I was relieved. My hope was that The King would just completely forget the incident because he hears so many pitches every week. We had our work set out for us, we had to reset some impressions.
The following week, we worked night and day putting together our presentation. I worked with my last remaining loyal engineer covertly on a more polished demo of our product. In my books, working code speaks louder than powerpoint slides. I worked with my product manager to make her talking points much more concise, and helped clean up her slides as they were a bit wordy. I helped enhance the business story by infusing metrics and data into the business models.
Our presentation would only be 10 minutes long, with 20 minutes of Q&A, and we had 40 slides. We did a test run of the deck with a couple of our allies from the committee. They threw hardball questions, and I was able to defend on the fly. They liked what they were hearing, and assured us that they would be rooting for us. The main problem was our deck was way too long, and I had to mercilessly cut out as much as possible. At the end of the exercise, we got our deck down to 20 slides.
We handed in the presentation deck 3 days before the pitch to the King's right-hand man to review (I refer to this character as The King's Hand). The feedback we got from The King's Hand, and from my product manager's boss. They felt that the deck seemed to be filled with a lot of fluff, and not a lot of facts. They wanted us to make some heavy revisions to the deck. The fluff they were referring to were some slides where I have a single beautiful picture, and nothing else. As a minimalist, less is more when it comes to presentations. I prefer to do story telling in my presentations while reinforcing my points with a single prominent picture. Thankfully my product manager defended the work saying, "I appreciate the feedback, but this is Chris' style, and he's been very successful with the format. Believe me, this isn't a fluffy presentation, a lot of the hard facts are in our talking points. We will not be making revisions." I was glad my product manager had the courtesy of preserving the integrity of our work, it would have been easy to just cave in to demands from people of authority. The King's Hand seemed skeptical, but allowed us to proceed. The product manager's boss felt very nervous as he preferred presentations packed with tables and diagrams.
You Thought It Was Going To Be That Easy?
The day had come for us to pitch to the committee. We got news in the morning that the King would not be in attendance because he was out of town on a business trip. I dreaded this answer because I still haven't had an audience with him in person. I would also have to deal with this nonsense that if I got my funding request approved, people would always ask, did you run this by The King? The King's Hand assured me that they had quorum that day, and the major stakeholders that deal with funding would all be present.
I gathered my team for one final practice run of the presentation. Folks on my team asked why I seemed so calm and collected, wasn't I afraid? There was a lot riding on this presentation, the project would die if we didn't secure the second round of funding. My answer was, three fold:
That's when my product manager mentioned she used to run an investment group that was called "Ronin Partners." I guess I'm decent at putting together a team of like-minded trouble makers.
It was time for the presentation, so we went up to the big conference room. We were first up to present, and thankfully they told us that the second group to present had cancelled so we had plenty of time. I started the presentation with a demo of our product which was pretty darn polished. I could see people's eyes dilate when they saw it, and lots of smiles emerged. I kept my eye on the King's Hand the entire time because we absolutely had to win him over. As I walked through the presentation, questions came from the audience and I answered every one with ease. I could see the King's Hand starting to drop his guard. My reality distortion field was set to maximum.
By the middle of the presentation, I handed off the reigns to my product manager. She started walking through the business model, and I could see heads nodding in agreement. Some people even felt that the numbers were on the conservative side, and could see this thing being bigger than projected. This was a good problem to have, it's far better than being accused of being too optimistic or fudging the numbers.
The presentation ended, and The King's Hand took the stand and congratulated us on a very good presentation. He then asked the VP of Engineering if he had resources for us. The VP asked one of his lieutenants (someone in my management chain) if we had resources for me. A quiet answer came out, "yes if you feel this is important." The VP of Engineering (the original guy that approved my funding) gave me a wink and said, you got your funding, go get them. I thought I was home free until someone asked, "has The King or the CEO seen this presentation yet?" I answered "no, but they would be seeing it before it launches." A bunch of mini-discussions broke out. Someone took the floor and said, well, if the CEO doesn't like it, then your project is dead, shouldn't you review it with her before moving forward? Gah.
The King's Hand reigned in all the conversations and said, since there's uncertainty around higher level approvals, take this to the King, and then to the CEO. The committee would approve funding once the higher ups approved.
This wasn't the outcome I was expecting. We had less than a week to book an audience with The King, and pitch.
An Audience With The King
"Neither soldiers nor money can defend a king but only friends won by good deeds, merit, and honesty." -Sallust, Roman Philosopher
We had a couple days to make addition fixes to the presentation. We needed some more polished mocks of what we were trying to build, so I went to my designers for that. Strangely enough their managers didn't like the idea of us showing mocks that they had not personally approved, and the approval process would take a couple days. They were afraid that they would be criticized for using wrong colours or some other design flaws. I had to push back because I had no time left, and told them, "look, I'm just trying to sell a vision here, it doesn't have to be perfect, I think a SVP is smart enough to know that this is not the final design." I don't think they officially sanctioned what I presented, but oh well.
The King's Hand and my product manager's boss also gave us additional feedback for tweaking the deck. Again, they were concerned that some key information wasn't explicit enough. They were worried that The King didn't have the proper context, and in 15 minutes we wouldn't be able to communicate the key points. They wanted us to reorder the pitch to cover the business stuff first. I was a bit dumbfounded by this feedback because I had JUST presented this deck to the committee and everyone thought it was excellent. I didn't get why everyone was assuming that The King was a dumb person that needed a lot of handholding in a presentation. Was it wrong that I assumed that The King sits on the throne because he has deep knowledge and expertise in our business? Surely a lowly peasant such as myself would know a lot less about this domain. I ended up not changing the presentation.
The day of the big meeting with the King came. My co-workers saw that I was in a powershirt and knew something big was going down. One of my co-workers started poking fun at how I was dressed, he claimed that I've become corporate and no longer an engineer. That crossed a line.
"Son, if you can't say something nice, say something clever, but devastating." -Emily Flake, The New Yorker
After being accused of being corporate, I started unbuttoning my powershirt. My co-workers didn't know what on earth I was doing. Underneath, I revealed the original Q1 Hack Day champion t-shirt that started this whole journey. I told them, "underneath all of this, I am a hacker at heart, this reminds me where I have come from, and who I am." That co-worker that was poking fun suddenly didn't have any comebacks. Owned. The others started laughing at him.
On the heels of verbally destroying a co-worker's ego, I was ready for my audience with The King. In the room was just the product manager, her boss, and I. The King walked in, and he said, "alright, show me something cool, don't show me a boring deck, show me some working code. I'm tired of decks." I laughed a bit on the inside because everyone was telling me to start with the business plan instead of the demo. The hacker in me knew to always start with a cool demo, and I was glad I stayed true to that. I showed him the demo, and he really liked what he saw. I proceeded with the story of how this idea came about, and the vision around it.
The King then asked me, what are other applications of this idea? I had about five seconds to think about this and come up with an answer. I had a canned answer that I thought he wanted to hear, and then I had an answer that was a gamble. The gamble was citing a product that we had built in the company which failed, but I thought the idea was good, but the execution was poor. Promoting something that failed seemed like a bad idea, but I decided to go off script and gambled with the answer. My product manager nervously looked at me as I started citing a product and business area that she knew nothing about, and definitely not part of the plan. I saw the King processing what I had just told him.
The King spoke and said, "you know, I worked on the exact same thing in my last company, and I love that space. I think that's great, and I can already think of who we could partner with to get that done." I caught myself momentarily in awe/dumbfounded that the gamble worked out. I had no prior knowledge about The King's former triumphs. Phew.
As much fun as I was having, the other boss in the room then suggested we go over the business plan. We went over it, and The King didn't really seem to care how much money we would make off this idea. He kind of dismissed it, and said, "you folks need to focus on building a really cool product, the money will come later." I felt liberated that the money side wasn't his primary concern.
My product manager then asked the million dollar question, would The King be willing to present the idea to the CEO. He seemed kind of offended and asked why CEO approval was needed? We told him that the committee wasn't sure how good of an idea this was, so they wanted CEO-level approval. The King dismissed this notion and said, "no, I think you have the right decision makers and partners in this room, your funding is approved, go talk to this person for resources."
Our time expired, and we were quickly ushered out of the room. It took a while for everything to sink in, but we had done it, we had secured our second round of funding. That 15 minutes changed everything. I'm glad that we didn't try to change our pitch to what other people thought it should be like. I'm glad that The King was a lot smarter than everyone gave him credit for, and he was very decisive.
Deus Ex Machina
I spent the rest of the day meeting up with my team members and thanking them for their hard work leading up to the holidays. Now we could breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy our Christmas vacation. The next day, I was flying back home to Canada. My product manager dropped by as I was about to leave to catch my flight. She gave me a thank you card, I opened it up and it was a poker themed card. She alluded to the fact that she can't read me, and even in super stressful situations, I maintain a poker face, and nothing seemed to faze me. I also apparently like to gamble big with this project. Guilty.
As I got onto the plane, I felt vindicated. Just two months ago, we were facing down utter defeat. Now, everything has changed again. One of my friends commented how this whole journey is like watching a movie, with plot twists coming in at just the right moments. I guess this would make a great movie scene as this chapter of 2012 ends as I ride off into the sunset in a plane bound for home.
I guess I would also roll credits with this music in the background and end with this quote:
"Politics. As exciting as war. Definitely as dangerous. Though in war, you only get killed once. In politics it can happen over and over." -Admiral Adama
"Simplicity is the hardest thing to do. Simplicity takes an amazing amount of skill and work to get to."
--Tim Parsey, SVP of Yahoo! Design
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