“Um, what are you doing?”
My wife stepped carefully over a paint can and one of my legs. She peered quizzically at my lower half, sticking out from under my 8-year-old’s newly painted desk as if I was tuning up a car.
“I’m teaching Kayla a lesson.”
“By painting under her desk?”
“Wait, what? That’s a lesson?”
“It’s one of the most important ones I know. I’m also inscribing a note.”
I finished up, snapped a photo of the inscription and popped out from below. I showed her the photo on my phone.
The desk was a present. My daughter turns 8 today and more than ever I feel like a father. It’s not just her age that makes me feel this way, but her growing talents and my responsibilities in nurturing them. She, like me, is a Builder of Things.
She draws. She paints. She makes books (as in literally, *makes* them, from the bindings to the illustrations to the stories within). She makes puppets. She takes photos. She. Makes. Things.
And she is very, very good at what she does.
I want to help her channel her creative energy in a way that will let her inspire others as she grows. She is a next generation maker and the creative tools already at her disposal make my childhood tools look like Play-Doh in comparison (because, actually that’s what it was). She will be leaps and bounds ahead of me. I want to pass on some of the lessons that I only learned in my twenties and thirties, now, while she is still moldable.
This particular lesson is simple:
I’m not going to tell her there is an inscription under her desk or even that I painted all the areas normally hidden from view. But one day - probably at some point over this year or the next - she will be playing hide and seek and find shelter under the desk. Maybe she’ll be recovering a lost toy and happen to look up. She might notice that I have taken time to painstakingly paint an area of her desk that is normally never seen.
She might not.
But at some point in the near future, she will notice the inscription:
And then, I hope, the lesson will be learned.
More to come on Twitter @avimuchnick.
When I first started @Aviary, I planned to be completely transparent about the company’s progress with everyone: employees, users and total strangers.
I understood that traditionally, early startups were in complete stealth mode and closed about their plans and progress.
That seemed silly to me.
It didn’t make those startups seem mysterious. It made their ideas seem indefensible if the only way to protect it was to keep quiet about it: A good startup idea is one that leverages the founders’ unique insight, backgrounds or positions in a defensible way. Worse, being silent made their progress seem minimal: It’s rare that a successful startup stays quiet for very long.
Take this January 2010 tweet from Dennis Crowley on Foursquare’s early growth, for example:
Your silence speaks volumes
There is cruel irony in that even people who think they are being stealthy aren’t. You are always sending signals to everyone around you, even by not sending any at all. When you are quiet about your progress or lack thereof, you are actually sending out terrible signals to the world.
Ycombinator’s Paul Graham can always tell when a startup is dying:
For us the main indication of impending doom is when we don’t hear from you. When we haven’t heard from, or about, a startup for a couple months, that’s a bad sign. If we send them an email asking what’s up, and they don’t reply, that’s a really bad sign. So far that is a 100% accurate predictor of death.
Transparency is good across your company
One of my good friends and former Aviary engineers, Mo Boehm, once commented to me:
“It’s probably a good idea to write all of your code anticipating that a thousand people will see it.”
Damn straight. Transparency (or the intention of it) leads to better decisions, in code and the real world.
Once you’re in the habit of being transparent, you make better decisions simply because you have no choice. You are being judged by everyone, and that’s a great thing. You can’t coast along or plateau without being held accountable by the world. An underperforming startup flying under the radar of the world is the worst thing for everyone involved in that startup. You can only coast for so long. Money runs out and investors will eventually see your flat stats. Being transparent with the world will force you to deal with problems immediately, before it’s too late.
And if you have no skeletons in your closet, you can’t be caught off guard when sensitive data inevitably leaks (because it will).
Learning the hard way
In Aviary’s early history and against my better judgement, I abandoned being transparent after someone close to the company told me I was being naive and that data shouldn’t be shared, not with strangers and not even employees. I wasn’t experienced and confident enough at the time to trust my instincts. This person was well meaning, but in retrospect it was wrong advice for Aviary.
There were repercussions in a variety of ways:
- Our users lost a personal connection to the team. We were no longer Aviary: the Product Team, a scrappy, enthusiastic group of individuals trying to change the world by making cool products. We were just Aviary: The Product. Users can’t have a personal relationship with a product.
- Our users no longer had any insight into our product plans. Some of our earliest feedback and user excitement came from regularly checking the Aviary blog for new tidbits on what was coming out and how traffic was performing. After getting quieter we lost a lot of that prime buzz among our earliest adopters.
- Our employees no longer had any window into how we were performing. When we tightened our belts, as will happen in startups, it caught them completely by surprise. Not cool. It makes those who stayed with the company lose their feeling of job security that comes with a window into the data. NOTE: Startup employees don’t fear being let go. They fear it happening unexpectedly.
- The lack of transparency filtered out into other ways, that ultimately infected the company DNA. For example, my team would be loathe to share bad news about late deadlines, etc… with me. And I in turn would be loathe to share bad news with investors and the board. Not healthy.
It reached a point when I decided I had enough and was going back to the basics. At the same point we officially repositioned Aviary as a photo-editing API that developers could plug into their apps, I sat down my team and told them that from this day on we’d be completely transparent as a company. The culture had to change.
We make it a point to share key aspects from our board meeting with the entire team afterwards. Every week the team is given a full update on our growth metrics, product roadmap, current strategy, bd partnerships, etc… And most importantly, we’re back to interactively sharing our progress with the world.
In retrospect, I learned two very valuable lessons that I won’t ever need to repeat:
- Always be transparent.
- Trust your own instincts. But that’s a post for another time.
More to come on Twitter @avimuchnick.