Joel Sumner Smith

Product manager in K12.

Analogical thinker in an analytical world.

2019

The past year was a year of growth: both familial and professional. Our baby girl grew from a crawling babbling one year old into a running almost-articulate two year old, and our baby boy grew from nothing into a smiley sweet new born.

At work under the forcing function of fundraising, my team produced an emerging but ultimately cohesive two year vision focused on technology-based scale and, like most startups these days, a path to profitability. In a year that saw a wide variety of IPOs and almost IPOs, profitability became a kind of new measure of success as we began to see the outcomes of what Fred Wilson called "[t]he massive experiment in using capital as a moat to build startups into sustainable businesses." And as he notes, it was largely a negative result. And I take that analysis not as an indictment of venture but as a reminder that capital isn't itself a sufficient moat. especially in hyrbid technology businesses.

After three years of wearing the designer hat for our team, I was able to pass that off as we hired a product designer to join my team. That's been both a relief and a growth opportunity: I'm now managing a function that I was once fulfilling. In preparation for my upcoming move into a true management role, I took the time to dig into Andy Grove's classic High Output Management. Past the anochronisms, the book offered a few points that I've found useful so far in my budding management career.

Firstly, and I think any employee of any organization can tell you this, but waffeling of decisions is the worst kind of negative leverage a manager can offer. As a border-line millenial, I hate being wrong, so one of the easiest defenses against being wrong, of course, is deferring or never making a decision. Grove's framing of it as a negative leverage helped me prioritize making clear and quick decisions while acknowledging (as one must) the uncertainty that surrounds those decisions.

Secondly, and this is a lesson I'm still trying to work out as we define the extent and breadth of the design role on our team, is to clearly hand-off tasks that you once did. It might seem obvious, but in the hurly-burly of wearing a lot of hats in an early stage startup, it can sometimes seems easier to just swoop-in and take over a task that you once did with ease when you see your direct report struggling with it. I've seen this happen with other managers before, and I've definitely fallen prey to this pattern as I worked into direct-report management.

While I've spent the better part of three years learning the operational and strategic ropes of helping to run a startup, this last year has felt like a refinement year where a lot of threads came together. And while I've certainly be in a management role of influece, I'm now combining that with a role of direct managent. It's a hybrid role in that way, but I look forward to the challenges and leverage of a growing team.

P.S. Here are some of the best things I've found or read this year:

  • Invest Like the Best episode with Daniel Ek (I forced myself to pick one episode). I thought that his explanation of a market vs. a Job to Be Done was a lightbulb moment for me.
  • Acquired episode with Rahul Vohra. I had read Rahul First Round article about building a Product Market Fit but I thought the podcast was a much richer (or maybe conversly, accesible) explanation.
  • I finally, this year, got hooked on Matt Levine's daily column. I don't always understand every joke about bonds of securities fraud, but he weaves gold with words while providing a finance-minded view into the goings on of the world.
  • Jerry Neumann. Period. But this one tweet (really a series of tweets) about creating a taxonomy of moats was really fascinating and helped me frame that out in a way I hadn't been able to when quoting the folksy wisdom around moats.
  • This HBR article about feedback was one of the first pieces of business writing that I felt aligned with my post-modern epistimology and ethics in a substantive way.

© 2020 Joel Sumner Smith