Are You Captain of Your Destiny?

Returning to quickly skim my blog reader 1,000+ after two weeks’ head-in-the-sand, I see ‘Pownce acquired,’ and ‘Yahoo’s Chief of Insights Joins Bunchball.’ My spin radar immediately starts blipping, because I know that behind the ‘good news,’ guts are wrenching. Decisions are being made for people, and that never feels good. Yet another reminder that all the sacrifices may well be worth captaining your own destiny.

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Sustaining yourself with a small business doesn’t make headlines. Money-raising has been the mainstay of startup news since venture capital exploded on the scene in the ’80s. ‘Huffington Post Nabs $25M.’ And why not? It was validation that the company ‘has arrived.’ It was the Big Show. But ask any CEO what changes when investors step in. Everything.

No, they’re not (necessarily) evil. They’re just bound and determined to turn your company into a successful exit. It’s their job, in fact. It’s not about you, or even your technology.

Chances are, your primary mission is not to achieve successful exit. (If it is, you’re probably going to fail.) For most of you, it is about you — your passion for your technology, or your customers, or what you do.

If it sounds like that’s at odds with investors, well it often is.

So when Bunchball (the Silicon Valley company that applies gaming mechanics to making sites stickier) announces its new ex-Yahoo CEO, I hear a founder’s gut wrenching. When crafts-aggregator Etsy announces former NPR Digital head Maria Thomas taking the helm, I hear a gut wrenching.

Often from the outside, the decisions seem right. Geeky founders often don’t make the transition to leadership — ubergeek Bill Gates is an exception — and Heidrick & Struggles and CTPartners (formerly Christian & Timbers) and the like make a lot of money plucking SVPs out of big companies and placing them in VC-funded startups. (The genealogy of silly titles can actually be traced back to CEOs being made to step down — where do you think Chief Product Officer, Chief Strategy Officer, Chief of Insights, and other staff titles came from?) But then, investors aren’t all-wise. Gross blunders are made at the highest levels. (Remember when Pepsi head Sculley was brought in to run Apple? Not to mention Gil Amelio . . .)

There’s really only one way to avoid decisions in your company being made for you: captain your own destiny.

That usually means going slow, growing customer by customer, often staying small. If you want to go ‘big’ — and not everyone does — you’re most likely to find yourself at the investment/management crossroads. As an ambitious technologist/hard-core developer, you might decide to bring in someone to run the business. (Hey, it happens — sometimes founders themselves honestly recognize the need for new leadership.) That bespeaks true wisdom on the part of tech founders. Eric Schmidt’s install at Google was a coup — not a coup d’etat.

In his blog post, ‘10 Tips for Building a Profitable Business,’ Dogster CEO Ted Rheingold’s entreated:

So constantly ask yourself, are we spending 50% of our time selling? I bet you’ll always realize you’re focusing too much on the product and not enough on finding customers that want it.

Any of us who’ve consulted know that hard truth: love doing the work, hate hustling to get it. If that’s you, and you find yourself running a company, you either need to embrace being the CEO (read: chief salesman) and quit coding, or find someone who’s a good complement to you to do that job and leave you to program (or design, or write, or do whatever it is that you really do best.)

Once you’ve piloted your ship (to belabor the metaphor) past the shoals into the smooth waters of profitability and solvency, and feel the need to raise cash, get big, and pull away from your competition, the dynamics of a deal with a VC changes radically — you get the money on your terms. Still el capitan!

I’ve observed a lot of folks in charge of their destiny lately. (In the month of November, 533,000 who were not, had their ships sunk for them — so much for job security.) Software, the Interwebs, automatic ads, SEO, and (yes) social networking have made it a greater possibility than ever — unlike the previous waves of semiconductors, PCs, and computer networking. It’s akin to the artisans of the Renaissance — with skills, there’s always work. Entrepreneurs today can be captains of their destiny.

And I truly admire you folks. The ones scrapping it out, making a living, while they build their business, serve their customers, and develop a following. Those of you who eat, drink, and sleep (not much) your startups.

Remind yourself this at the end of your crappiest days: You’re the one making the decisions. Go make some really tough ones.

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Surprises

This is a guest post from Andrew Feinberg who is a journalist working in Washington, D.C. covering the technology policy discussions occurring on Capitol Hill. He works for Washington Internet Daily published by Warren News

6:30am – alarm

7:00am – stop ignoring the alarm

7:35am – dressed and out to subway

8:10am – arrive at Capitol, eat a bagel.

10:00am – Leave press office, go to hearing room.

DC is a big small town. You see the same cast of characters every day, except of course for the interns, who think they truly run the place.

Which makes surprises even more fun. For instance, sitting down and seeing Kara Swisher across from you at the press table. Wearing a T-Shirt and Jeans.

Why? Kara has been covering technology forever…

…from San Francisco.

Kara and I were both there to cover the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee’s hearing on the Google-Yahoo advertising deal (aka GooHoo). Why was this so special?

A) Kara is from SF. She doesn’t see this stuff every day. She’s not jaded.

B) She’s a blogger. For Dow Jones, but a blogger nonetheless. She doesn’t have to be “objective.”

C) It shows people are starting to care. Less than a month after I get Robert Scoble to come to DC for some interviews, we get another great tech blogger to actually cover a Senate hearing.

More, please.

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Jeremy Zawodny Leaves Yahoo

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Photo Credit Josh Bancroft
Yahoo’s brain drain continues and, TechCrunch provides a great analysis into the latest desperate deal Yahoo is engaged in. This time with Google.

Yahoo is in a very bad position and everyone knows it. Now, possibly the best known Yahoo, Jeremy Zawodny is leaving the company for greener pastures. Jeremy made his announcement the other day amidst denials.

I won’t at all be surprised if some people think this is related to Microsoft or Carl Ichan and the uncertainty surrounding Yahoo’s future. The reality is that there’s nothing pushing me out the door at Yahoo. The reason I’m leaving is that something very compelling has come along to lure me away. Despite what the current press sentiment might be, Jerry and David have built a remarkable company.

While I don’t believe this for even a second, I also know what it’s like to leave a company you feel tremendous kinship to. Especially one you’ve been at for a very long time.

Jeremy was one of those guys I read avidly in my early years of blogging. James from Outside the Beltway was my political blogger of choice. He reads my blog today as I do his. Seth Godin was my business blogger of choice. I’m quite sure Seth does not read my blog. Jeremy was my technology blogger of choice and I have no idea if he reads my blog. :-)

I’m really excited for Jeremy. I’ve felt he should move on from Yahoo for awhile now, and I’m sure he has felt the pressure to do so himself. Finding people in technology – particularly at web companies – that stay with a single company, loyally, for 8.5 years is somewhat akin to Cal Ripken being a Baltimore Oriole for all of his 20+ year career.

Whoever he lands with gets a tremendous depth of knowledge, ingenuity and public respect. He could be an evangelist, a product marketer, a product manager, a systems administrator, a DBA, a business development guy or even Public Relations. Whoever gets him doesn’t just get a brain, but gets a whole lot of influence and political capital in the web world.

Congratulations, Jeremy, to you and your new wife. Don’t worry about the economy. I’m pretty sure you can pick your job. And it sounds like you have.

Update: Jeremy is going to Craigslist.

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