Monday, January 20, 2020

Olifano. The Origin Story.

I built Olifano for myself. That sounds a bit arrogant and probably not a good way to start a blog post. I think what I am supposed to say is that I built Olifano to make the world a better place, to right all of the wrongs and to ensure a better future for humanity. But, truth be told, I built it because as someone who takes pride in getting shit done (GSD) and as a leader and a writer, it’s a tool that I had often wished existed. 

The Problem (Part 1)

I’ve been fortunate to build and scale some amazing teams and to work alongside exceptional people. But one thing that consistently surprised me was how difficult it is to get everyone on message. With constantly evolving products, services, and focus just getting everyone in the company to use the same messaging, the same “pitch”, is a constant challenge. This isn’t just a big company problem either. In many of the small organizations where I worked, things moved very quickly. It was just as hard to get everyone on the same page and using the same language as it was in large complex organizations where things moved a. bit. more. slowly. 

Two of the operating principles that I established at my last company were “Done > Perfect” and “Challenge the Status Quo”. Worthy ideals I think. But it was constantly frustrating to see “Done > Perfect” = sending old or custom and incorrect documentation. Or “Challenge the Status Quo” being taken to mean going rogue and not following proven practices for success. E.g., “Oh I have my own kick-off deck.” 

Getting everyone aligned on one message is one challenge. Getting everyone using the same resources is another. Both frustrating and both are critical to success. I thought there must be a better way. 

The Problem (Part II)

I am a writer. Think Hemingway, Dickens, Rand, Tolstoy. It’s true. They are all on my bookshelf. I am a writer the way the guy eating chips in seat 11B is an aviator. But, I do try. I write an occasional blog for Olifano, I write articles on LinkedIn and I have a personal blog that sadly not even my mom reads. 

Like many famous authors before me, I read a lot and I gain a lot of neurosis from that. Many of the people I read every day write on work topics. They often have great facts to share, esoteric quotes that reinforce how much more they know and anecdotes from great sources that I haven’t even heard of.  As a writer, I often wondered how they pulled so many relevant facts into their work. How do they remember it all? When I tried to find a quote or reference to add to my writing I would spend 20+ minutes Googling the topic and end up shopping for sailboats. 

I thought everyone knows something I don’t and there must be a better way. 

The Solution

After I left my last company, I took a road trip driving from Utah to California and up to the tip of Washington along Highway 101. It is one of my favorite road trips and I have taken it dozens of times over the years. Hiking the beaches and camping with Kiya, my malamute, I spent a lot of time thinking about the people and things at work that annoy me. You know, a sneaky hate spiral. But with enough time on the beach, enough time hiking in the rain with the malamute, the bitterness washed away and I started to think more productively about how to solve those problems. 

It started with Why. 

In our personal lives, when we need something it finds us. Need a Big Mac? Doordash will deliver. Need a car to take you three blocks in the rain? Uber. Need endless smart recommendations on what to read, watch, or listen to? Apple, Amazon, or Netflix. But when we get to work and we need something, we search and search and search. Why? The average employee uses more than 36 cloud services. Information is everywhere. They spend as much as 20% of their time searching for the information they need to do their jobs. It’s no wonder they aren’t on message. It’s no wonder they are using old and outdated resources. Why do we still do this? 

And when we sit down to write, to craft our latest masterpiece, why do we need to dig up our browsing history to find that interesting fact we read last week? Why do we need to open a new tab to Google something and risk distraction? My wife isn’t going to let me buy another sailboat. Why am I searching for one instead of looking for that link I need to sound smart? Why is this so hard? 

The information we need should find us. To ensure our teams are aligned and on message, to write smart blog posts like this one that our mothers will love, and to do our best work, the information we need should find us right where we are working. So, I started building Olifano. Mostly for me. But other people are finding it useful too. Maybe they will change the world. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

My Startup Journey - Emotion

Fast and furious
We find joy and deep sadness
The startup journey

Any role in a startup can be a roller coaster ride. My first 60 days as a founder has proven to me that it is a fast, furious and deeply emotional ride. Over the last two weeks, I shared a couple of posts on the journey so far. The first post is about the excitement of starting something new and feeling that, despite the many years I have spent helping grow and scale companies, starting my own is an entirely different journey. The second post is about the doubts and feelings of being an imposter that can creep in when you are starting the journey. The third post is about the constant struggle and the insidious idea that maybe I should take the safe route and just nibble. The fourth and most recent post is about the challenge of maintaining perspective and not letting a GSD (get shit done) mindset undermine the sense of progress because of a lack of external validation.

I am at once incredibly invigorated to be doing something new, inspired by the potential to solve an enormous problem and excited to be finally pursuing my dream of building my own company. At the same time, I’m genuinely scared of failing, of making big or obvious mistakes and being judged an imposter or worse, someone who simply can’t get shit done. I’m 60 days in and it’s an amazing ride and well worth the years of anticipation and “someday” thinking. I am reminding myself to pause and enjoy the journey. Whether it is excitement, doubt, risk or just trying to maintain perspective, the cliche’ is spot on: it is all about the journey and not the destination.

I can’t wait to share what we are building with you. We launch this fall. Please take a minute to follow the Olifano company page on LinkedIn for updates and an early opportunity to register for the beta launch.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

My Startup Journey - Perspective

There is always more
Product to build, work to do 
Keeping perspective

I recently started my own company, Olifano. This is the fourth post in a series about the lessons I am learning along the way.

I love to work. It is a part of my identity. I also love that one of the first things many people who have worked with me would say is that I just get shit done. Well, they would probably say a few other things first but if pressed for a positive they would say I get shit done. I think that is a positive attribute for anyone working in a startup. For a founder, especially so. But what I have learned from my own startup journey is that without the perspective of others the get shit done (GSD) mindset can drive you crazy. It’s never enough when there is no one but yourself watching. It’s never enough when there is no one telling you, “Great job!”. It is never enough when you know how much more there is to do.

One of the challenges in my own founder's journey is simply keeping perspective. In the first week, I created a chart with the key milestones I needed to achieve to get to launch. It is only 17 items long, and some of the items are pretty big (e.g., define a go-to-market strategy), but it helps me keep the big picture in mind and not get lost in all of the small and seemingly endless GSD details of the day-to-day. If that sounds trite, it is. This is not the secret sauce to successfully starting a company. It is super basic but important. We usually create milestone charts and project plans to keep teams aligned and working on the right things. I created this one for myself, on paper. I have found it is hard to keep perspective without reminding myself of the milestones and progress. It’s on paper so it is always staring at me from the desk, regardless of what’s on the screen in front of me. There is more to do. But perspective on all the work done so far helps.

I can’t wait to share what we are building with you. We launch this fall so please stay tuned!

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

My Startup Journey - Eating Shit

Go big or go home
The warning signs are quite clear
Getting out of bounds

I recently started my own company, Olifano. This is the third post in a series about the lessons I am learning along the way. You can find the first here and the second here.

Still one of my favorite quotes, Ben Horowitz in his book “The Hard Thing about Hard Things” notes that “if you are going to eat shit, don’t nibble”. The ski bums here in Park City say, “Go big or go home.” As a startup founder, you have to believe in your idea. That just makes sense, otherwise, why bother. I believe, quite passionately, in the idea of Olifano but I find that I am constantly fighting the temptation to nibble at it.

“Maybe I should keep working as a Chief Customer Officer and start Olifano as a side-hustle?”.

“Maybe I should start with a really small pilot group of users so I don’t disappoint too many people with the MVP.”

“Maybe I should self-fund it all, that way you don’t have to put anyone else’s money at risk.”

The temptation is to nibble. To stay on the easy green ski runs. Stay in bounds. It might work to go slow, start small and build slowly. Proceed cautiously and not risk anything more than I have to. I find that I have to keep reminding myself, don’t nibble! I have yard saled on tough slopes and walked away with more than a few bruises. They healed. I have been fired from jobs I loved. It ultimately worked out for the best. I keep coming back to the Horowitz quote. “Don’t nibble”. It might be easier to play it safe but I might also miss the real opportunity. It might be easier (and a lot less embarrassing) to fail small but I won’t learn what it could have been. It is a constant struggle for me, and a surprise of the founder journey, the constant doubts and that insidious idea that maybe I should stick to nibbling.

I can’t wait to share what we are building with you. We launch this fall so please stay tuned! You can follow Olifano on LinkedIn.

Friday, June 14, 2019

My Startup Journey - Doubt

Brilliant ideas

The right place at the right time
... and then the doubts came

I recently started my own company, Olifano. This is the second in a series of posts about the lessons I am learning along the way. Here is a link to the first.

I knew from years of reading about startups and startup founders that there would be moments of doubt. Reid Hoffman described it as “the valley of the shadow” and Ben Horowitz “the struggle”. In my own experience as an executive leading large teams of brilliant people I often suffered from imposter syndrome and moments of doubt as to whether I was really smart enough to lead others. But as a new founder when doubt hits it can really smack you.

“What are you doing?!”

“Why do you think you can make this work?”

“Most startups fail, why would you risk your reputation and spend... wait, how much?”

Not only are the questions bracing, for me at least, but they hit every day. I walk my dogs at 4:30 in the morning and in the darkness of Park City I think about the day ahead. For the last 60 days, running through the list of doubts has been the recurring theme. It’s tough to start the day with, “WTF are you doing?!”

I don’t have good answers for dealing with doubt or imposter syndrome. It might be one of those things that never really goes away. Maybe some of the founders reading this can chime in with how they deal with the doubt. For now, I remind myself that doubt is expected. It is a part of the process. I tell myself, almost every morning, “Just calm the f* down, this is a part of the journey.” And, “If you weren’t feeling this doubt something would be wrong”. It is a bit of a mantra given how often I worry about whether I am on the right track or not.

Doubt can be a good thing. It can lead to the tough questions that you should be asking. But it shouldn’t stop you. I won’t let it stop me.

I can’t wait to share what we are building with you. We launch this fall so please stay tuned! You can follow Olifano on LinkedIn.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

My Startup Journey - New Beginning

A new beginning
Learning from the seasons past
My startup journey

My startup journey actually began in 2002 when I joined my first startup, a dozen or so people building an HR platform in Dallas. Since then I have spent my career building and scaling teams at startups including SuccessFactors, HireVue, Kahuna and most recently Degreed. It has been the quintessential startup roller coaster: the grind of hands-on software implementations and frustrated customer calls, the highs of IPO and acquisition, and all the way down to the lows of laying off some of the great people I have hired. Despite these challenges and the often hard-earned experience, I feel like my startup journey is really only 60 days old. This year I started Olifano. It’s the first startup where I am the founder - employee number one. We haven’t launched yet so it’s okay if you haven’t heard of it.

I am fortunate to have had the incredible career experiences I have had so far. I have hired and worked with amazing teams, built an extensive network of customers, colleagues, and friends and gained tremendous experience across functions. But - and it’s a big but - I have found that nothing prepared me to be the founder of my own startup. Just 60 days in and it is absolutely clear that it is going to be something brand new. From the painful loneliness of starting something from scratch to the emptiness of knowing nothing happens unless you do it yourself, it is already a profoundly unique experience.

There is a lot of great content written about startups and founders and I won’t pretend to have the answers. I am passionate about learning and sharing with others so over the next few days I will share a handful of the things that I have experienced and learned in my first 60 days. I hope you find the insights valuable.

I can’t wait to share what we are building at Olifano. We launch this fall so please stay tuned! You can follow Olifano on LinkedIn or on Twitter.

About David Verhaag 

David has spent his career building and scaling teams at some of the leading HR technology companies. He was most recently the Chief Customer Officer at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, he held leadership positions at Kahuna, HireVue, and SuccessFactors. David lives in Park City, Utah.

Follow on Twitter Connect on LinkedIn

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

On Spring and Being Relentlessly Resourceful

Complex elegance
Relentlessly resourceful
Imagining Growth

Paul Graham wrote a short blog post back in 2009 describing the characteristics of a good startup founder. His two-word description was “relentlessly resourceful”. I came across this great post again this morning after listening to Harry Stebbings and the 20 Minute VC interview with Geoff Ralston, President of Y Combinator. Ralston noted that he wants to invest in “resourceful and determined” founders, “people who can build”, founders who he believes are going to be able to “create things.” These descriptions of great founder characteristics sound simple, almost silicon valley cliche’, but they stuck with me this morning as Kiya and I took our hike and I thought about today’s haiku.

Spring in the mountains is endlessly inspiring. Growth is all around us. It’s not just the new growth that comes with spring that is inspiring though. It is the relentlessly resourceful growth. Trees grow through cracks in the jagged rocks, grass pushes through layer upon layer of fallen decaying aspen leaves, and the flowers of the mountains bloom in exceptional and brilliant ways to compete for attention. My wife inspired me to capture photos of the spring, and the close encounters, like the one above, have been eye-opening. So much complexity grows beneath our feet. There is elegant and beautiful complexity that grows through the spring rains and the mountain storms. There is relentless and resourceful growth in the mountains and it is simply amazing.

Graham notes in his post that there are probably other fields where “relentlessly resourceful” might be a recipe for success. I could not agree more. I believe that Client Experience teams (aka Customer Success) benefit as much, if not more, than any other function from individuals who demonstrate relentless resourcefulness. Serving customers in today’s enterprise software market is incredibly challenging. There is so much technology chasing our customer’s attention. I read recently that the average knowledge worker uses 36 cloud services in their day-to-day work. Thirty-six! And it’s not just the technology that complicates how we serve our customers. Our customer’s lives are increasingly complex as today’s dynamic organizations change, restructure, and evolve. Breaking through to our customers is a challenge but that is only the beginning. Today’s enterprise customers live with and are often obsessed with consumer-grade technology and experiences. Their expectations for enterprise technology are no different. Serving them and delivering the outcomes they need requires everyone in CX to become relentlessly resourceful.
How do we become relentlessly resourceful? As startup investors, founders and leaders how do we encourage and develop this critical characteristic in others? Here are three ideas.

Encourage Authenticity

Christopher Lochhead wrote a great piece this morning on authenticity. I have long admired Lochhead’s own authenticity in designing legendary businesses and brands and his Legends and Losers podcast is a must listen for anyone interested in building something truly unique. As Lochhead notes, “People don’t want to be sold on an idea — they want to learn from a real person through a natural conversation.” To be relentlessly resourceful we need to encourage, and not just encourage but actively draw out, the authenticity in ourselves and others. Authenticity is an exceptionally powerful resource that too often sits on the shelf. Individuals are encouraged, either directly or through implied norms, to look and act like others. Almost by definition, relentlessly resourceful individuals will leverage all of their strengths, including their own unique voice, style, and ideas, to break through and drive outcomes for customers.

Give it Room

Another silicon valley cliche’ is the idea of “failing fast”. Benedict Evans had a great post some years ago “In Praise of Failure” that did an excellent job of articulating the value in creating room to fail. As Evans explained, “You need to ask not whether this idea will fail, let alone whether it could fail, but rather, ‘what would it be if it worked?’ You need, in a sense, to ‘suspend disbelief’ - to put aside your normal human risk-aversion and skepticism, accept the probability that it could go to zero, and ask if this could 'put a dent in the world', and if so, how big.” Despite the article’s unfortunate title, and how many have misinterpreted this well-worn sound byte, building relentless resourcefulness is not about celebrating failure but allowing room for it. It is about accepting that in order to win big you need to play big and try new things and yes, sometimes those big ideas will fail. To be relentlessly resourceful and develop that characteristic in others we need to create room for them to fail. Practically that might mean giving a manager room to make a hiring decision that you don’t completely agree with, giving them the space to test a new methodology that you don’t completely buy into, or focusing on stretch assignments for well placed passive employees on the team. Relentlessly resourceful is not about casting seeds into the wind and telling your team it is okay if they fail but giving your team the opportunity to plant, nurture and grow in unconventional places and ways.

Push. Hard.

Many people have achieved great things without being challenged along the way. That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? Challenge is essential to achieving great things. Pushing one another enables us to run faster. Ben Horowitz wrote in The Hard Thing About Hard Things, “Most business relationships either become too tense to tolerate or not tense enough to be productive after a while. Either people challenge each other to the point where they don’t like each other or they become complacent about each other’s feedback and no longer benefit from the relationship.” Horowitz noted about his relationship with Marc Andreessen, “Even after eighteen years, he upsets me almost every day by finding something wrong in my thinking, and I do the same for him. It works.” To help our teams develop the relentlessly resourceful characteristics that will help fuel our business success, and their ultimate career success, they need the challenge. I am not suggesting, which might surprise some people that I have worked with, that everyone should be a hard ass all of the time. But I am suggesting that winning the leadership popularity contest is not a recipe for driving or delivering exceptional results. To develop ourselves and others we need to push and push hard. We need to challenge one another and sometimes that will be uncomfortable. Doing so provides the friction needed for growth and can help to create the environment for relentless resourcefulness.

There is a lot we can learn about driving startup success from a simple hike in the mountains. The flowers beneath our feet grow and flourish when they excel in their ability to attract the pollinators. They do this through unique and innovative designs. In our startup journey, success is often realized through our individuality and authenticity. Mountain flowers grow when there is room. When there isn’t, either growth doesn’t happen or, like the trees pushing through cracks in the stone, they make room. Similarly, for our teams, we need to make room to grow. It won’t always work out but we need to take our best shot. Finally, like spring growth in the mountains, we have to push, often hard, to find the sunlight. The fallen aspen leaves, the decay of prior seasons, can bury the flowers if they don’t push hard enough to find the light. The strong survive. In our startup lives, we need the challenge, we need to push and be pushed in order to thrive. Life is relentlessly resourceful. With work, we and our teams can be as well.