Monday, October 31, 2016

A Year of Volatility

When we named our sailboat “Volatility” we thought it was a clever way to describe our shared life together. Over the course of our first 13 years together we have collectively moved 15 times including coast to coast, from the city to the mountains and back, from conservative bastion to liberal epicenter and from our remote mountain top cabin to our current home floating on the sea. “Volatility” also described well a partnership that was not always easy or without friction. As anyone who knows us can attest, I am perfectly agreeable but my wife can be quite opinionated.

Volatility can also describe startup life. From the excitement of disruptive technology to the hard realities of employee and customer turn over and the impacts of large scale boom and bust cycles, working in a startup in Silicon Valley is a highly dynamic experience.  As we celebrate a year of living together on a sailboat I am struck by how much of what we have learned applies to building and managing a start-up. These are my top 3 takeaways for thriving amidst volatility.


Before we moved onto Volatility we made some hard decisions about what to keep and what to let go of. As we whittled our processions down to the bare minimum I was amazed at how much stuff we simply didn’t need or care that much about. While we both share a minimalist aesthetic we still found that we had accumulated more than we needed and much more than you can live with on a boat. To make it work we had to simplify.

Keeping it simple in a startup is more difficult than it sounds. I am continuously amazed at how easy it is to start accumulating processes and tools that you simply don’t need. Like the extra shoes in your closet, all of these processes serve a purpose and make sense at the time they are launched. I need four pairs of running shoes! But in the end they just clutter your closet. They distract and complicate. The success of my Customer Success teams at SuccessFactors, HireVue and Kahuna were driven in large part by keeping it simple. The job: focus on doing the right thing for the customer by driving value. Period. It is not always easy but to make it work, we start by simplifying.

Go/No-Go Decisions

One of my biggest frustrations during our first year of living on a sailboat was just how little we actually sailed. The winter of 2015/16 was an El Nino winter and I was frequently frustrated as the swell on the open ocean rose above our comfort level or the winds were simply too strong for our sailing experience. Whenever the red flags (small craft advisory or gale warning) came up my heart and hopes for sailing sank. Weekend after weekend we made go/no-go decisions, often choosing to stay safe in harbor.

Successfully managing a team in a startup is as much about what you do as what you choose not to do. It is easy to get in over your head and find yourself swamped with work that doesn’t actually move the needle or projects with scope creep that suck up valuable time and resources. To consistently drive positive results, it helps to have a system for evaluating what you work on. Understanding and constantly looking to your core objectives is really the only place to start. If the project or initiative you are considering doesn’t align, doesn’t support and doesn’t move you in the direction of success against those objectives, why are you doing it? There is no Coast Guard in a startup environment raising the red flag to tell you to stay put. It’s up to you.


When we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge on our way to Half Moon Bay it was everything I had imagined for the long seven months we had waited. Beyond the bridge, the expectations were pretty much out the window. While I love living on our boat, and in the harbor of Half Moon Bay, there were, and still are, a lot of surprises. From the sea lions that occasionally bump the boat and constantly bark at night to the outdoor shower leak that filled the bilge with fresh water, boat living is not always as carefree and easy as I thought it would be. I have had to adjust my expectations constantly to find the joy in the reality.

With all of the press that startups get, it makes sense that everyone has an expectation of what it is like to work for one. For professionals coming from large companies like Salesforce, Oracle and SAP, the idea of small fast moving teams and unencumbered innovation holds significant appeal. The expectations for fast easy success and rapid growth can quickly get away from even the most pragmatic people. It’s Silicon Valley, everyone is successful here! The reality is, startups don’t often grow in a straight, up and to the right path. Mistakes get made, the wrong people are hired and take too long to fire, the competition catches and passes you one day even as you might catch and pass them the next, big accounts leave you and you are only as successful as your last board meeting. Success, and enjoying the experience, requires letting go of expectations and embracing the challenging reality that often looks like incredibly hard work, constant adjustment, adaptation and perseverance.

Startup life is highly unpredictable and dynamic. While this volatility can present significant challenges it also represents considerable opportunities. By embracing the reality of the challenge, taking a hard look at what you do and choose not to do, and keeping it simple and focused, you will have the best opportunity for smooth sailing.

About David Verhaag 

David is the Founder of Olifano, a context-based knowledge assistant bringing information into the flow of work. Before starting Olifano David held roles as Chief Customer Officer, VP Customer Success, and Director, Strategic Services at several notable startups.

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