Two weeks ago I wrote about our Skill and Pace value. Another of our four values is Enjoy The Journey. This one is more axiomatic for me than the others. Everyone at Forward Partners is devoting a significant part of their life to the cause and if it’s not enjoyable, what’s the point? The journey is the destination.
But what does it mean to live the value “Enjoy The Journey”?
First and foremost, it’s about finding meaning in our work.
Straight up fun is also important of course and we go out regularly as a team and with our partner companies to do crazy things and have a few drinks together, but I liken that stuff to the role of an important supporting actor. You need it, and the film wouldn’t work without it, but it’s not enough on its own. The lead actor, the rest of the cast, the script, the set and everything else have to be right too.
I think of table football, ping pong tables, Play Stations and beers in the office in the same way. They can help people enjoy their time at work but they are a sub-plot, not the main story. It’s been said many times recently, but perks are not culture.
So how do we find meaning in our work?
First, there’s a question of attitude. You have to want to find meaning in your work, and to be willing to work at it.
I love this from Tim O’Reilly’s recent introduction to Azeem Azhar’s Exponential View newsletter:
From When Nietzsche Wept, by Irvin Yalom: First will what is necessary. Then love what you will.
There’s a profound insight there that I’ve tried to live by, long before I read the quote. Life asks many things of us that we don’t want to do. Some of them are distractions, but some of them are necessary. It’s so easy to be full of resentment toward things that we feel are keeping us from our joy. Finding joy in what needs doing is magical. Learning to love the things that are necessary—like daily chores—is the secret of happiness.
For most of us at Forward Partners meaning can be found at three levels:
- Taking joy in helping founders build their companies
- Taking pride in their role in building Forward Partners
- Mastering their craft, be that design, development, growth, talent, back office or investment
Taking insight from Dan Pink’s seminal book Drive and Paul Dolan’s Happiness by Design, the final components that bring enjoyment and fulfilment are autonomy (i.e. the ability to control our own work life and schedule) and some time having plain old fun – which is where the beer and ping pong comes in.
Our job as a company is to create an environment which makes it as easy as possible for our people to find meaning at all three levels, provides for autonomy and is fun to work in. Here are a few of the things we do:
- Manage by objectives
- Provide regular feedback
- Back companies that go on to enjoy significant success
- Be clear about our mission and the contribution we all make to our success
- Recognise success
- Celebrate our wins (big and small)
- Find interesting work for people to do
- Offer training and development
- Maximise on-the-job learning opportunities
- Encourage people to blog, speak at conferences and become recognised experts in their field
- Recruit and promote people who get on with each other (this is why many companies have a ‘no assholes’ rule)
- Create opportunities for friendships to build, especially cross team
- Go out and have fun together every now and again
So far, I think we are pretty good at this, but can definitely do better. We do many of these things well already, but some of them we could do with more conviction. Living our Enjoy the journey value is journey in itself, and to really live it requires constant thought an iteration.
You might have seen that the week before last Balfour Beatty (here) and Mace (here) weighed in on the future of construction. Both are quite radical in the breadth and depth of impact they predict, whilst the technologies they choose are perhaps unsurprising to anyone immersed in the startup ecosystem. The Balfour Beatty piece is more detailed and they predict humanless construction sites by 2050 (which is admittedly a long way off – broadband is less than twenty years old) saying that drones, robots and 3D and 4D modelling will get us there.
Construction is a massive industry with low productivity that hasn’t seen much penetration of tech. Balfour Beatty and Mace clearly see that changing and towards the end of the Balfour Beatty article they herald the arrival of a “constructech” market. Fintech, and more recently proptech and insurtech are startup categories that many VCs and corporates are targeting and I’m guessing they are indulging in a bit of marketing to try and stimulate activity in their own backyard.
I think they will succeed. As noted, construction is a massive market, but it is messy and complicated for startups due to the bespoke nature of most construction jobs and heavy regulation. As technology advances these problems become more tractable, and there are parallels with healthcare and govtech which face similar challenges and are already enjoying more attention from entrepreneurs and investors.
I expect we will see two classes of constructech startup:
- Startups selling tech enabled services to existing construction companies – e.g. site mapping services using drones
- Startups leveraging new technologies to compete with existing construction companies – e.g. a new housebuilder which has radically different economics (maybe charging based on usage or building for a fraction of the cost)
This is a common pattern for startups bringing tech to new industries. There are some companies that support existing industry structures and some that disrupt them. When this battle played out in media the disruptors mostly came out on top, but in ecommerce and marketplaces (where we make maybe half our investments) the game is still on – Amazon is a winner, but it remains unclear who will take the rest of the seats at the top table. In financial services none of the biggest companies are recent startups, although that’s partly a matter of scale and large numbers of entrepreneurs are building great businesses.
It’s interesting to think how it will play out in construction. The reasons that startups have struggled historically aren’t going away and it’s hard to do big things in a small way, so I suspect incumbents have more of an advantage than they do in most industries.
Here at Forward Partners we are going through a process of rethinking our values. We have historically had seven, but found that was too many to consistently remember and action, so we recently consolidated it down to four:
- We execute with skill and pace
- We get better every time
- We play the game differently
- We enjoy the journey
The next step in our process is to flesh out what these mean in a bit more detail. I’ve been thinking about our ‘skill and pace’ value in particular. This is one that was part of the seven, so we’ve had it for a while. We adopted the value originally because we were having problems balancing speed and quality. We were getting conflict between team members who wanted to move fast and those who were concerned that we were compromising too much on quality. Most often this was when we were deciding whether to release products or launch services when bug testing had been done, but not done to death, and before the full suite of unit tests had been written. We realised that we didn’t have a language to discuss the trade-off between speed and quality and so introduced the ‘skill and pace’ value so we could repeatedly ask ourselves if we had the balance right.
As I’ve been mulling over it some more it’s becoming clear to me that another aspect of executing with skill and pace is being comfortable with both the big picture and the detail. The big picture gives you ambition, the need to move quickly and ensures you are on a worthwhile path. The detail is key to hitting your short-term goals and is what enables you to move at speed.
Conversely, people who prefer to live only in the big picture can be insufficiently practical and people who are only comfortable in the detail can find it hard to see past short-term obstacles.
The world is turning against tech. Silicon Valley is in danger of becoming the new Wall Street – public enemy number one. And it’s easy to see why. Facebook is being used to influence elections and promote hate speech. Google is pressuring think tanks to fire people they don’t like. And meanwhile Uber has grown into one of the most obnoxious companies on the planet. That’s just the news in 2017. To that, you can add enduring concerns over privacy, the dangers of AI, losing our children to their devices, and perhaps most dangerous of all, a growing sense that tech is a leading cause of the growing inequality of wealth. Meanwhile, we are easy to ridicule.
All this has come as a bit of a shock to much of the tech ecosystem. Collectively we’ve been happily beavering away, content that our work is driving innovation, economic growth and job creation. We haven’t been wrong. Young companies are responsible for nearly 100% of net job creation.
We have, however, been in denial about the negative side of the massive growth in tech. It’s easy to be dismissive of privacy concerns as misguided (been there, got the t-shirt) but they matter deeply to a lot of people. Similarly, with kids spending all their time on their phones; there are pros and cons and it’s easy to focus on the pros – it’s truly fantastic that my children have all the world’s information at their fingertips.
But, as with most everything in life, tech has its good sides and its bad sides. What’s important is that we recognise that as a fact. Otherwise we aren’t listening to our critics, and so, in turn, they won’t listen to us. This was probably always true, but it’s pressing now that tech is such a large part of society. On 30 June this year, the four largest companies in the world by market cap were Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft and Amazon. Facebook was number eight. Products of the tech industry are now everywhere, all of the time and it’s not surprising people are paying attention.
Our opportunity is to move to a more nuanced and honest dialogue. It’s important to continually re-emphasise the good that comes out of the startup ecosystem, mostly jobs and productivity growth. But in the same breath, we should acknowledge that some of the fruits of our labour are hurting us and need regulating. Perhaps more challenging is to recognise that change is scary to some people and that their opinion is as valid as ours. We should start to look beyond simply creating enduring companies, to how we can build technology and businesses which can have a long-lasting positive impact.
None of this is too difficult. Lots of the raw ingredients are there already. We have data on the positive impact that startups have on jobs and the economy and we have lots of great products and much-loved companies. AirBnB stands out to me as a good example that has hit a lot of scale, and there are literally thousands of smaller companies I could cite. We should continue to tell this side of our story much as we have been, but start thinking like members of society rather than tech advocates when it comes to issues like those listed above. That will be easier if we stop identifying with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. They aren’t startups anymore. They are large self-interested institutions with a big influence on society which, inevitably, has its good sides and its bad sides.
If we don’t move to a more honest dialogue, we will end up in a shouting match with the rest of society, where neither side is hearing the other. There are important policy issues that we need to address and if we don’t go about it in the right way news like last Friday’s announcement from TFL that they won’t be renewing Uber’s license to operate in London will start to become the norm rather than the exception. I am hopeful that calm heads will prevail in that situation and more generally but that will only happen if we in the tech industry open our hearts and minds to the concerns of other parts of society.
From a recent Fast Company article about Satya:
Invited to participate in a Q&A at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, a major annual event, he told the largely female audience that women in the tech industry should forgo asking for raises and instead trust that the system would reward them appropriately. The negative reaction was swift, with attendees quickly tweeting out their pushback.
Nadella realized his mistake, and the next day issued an apology. “I answered that question completely wrong,” he wrote in an email to Microsoft employees. Today, he describes his onstage comments as “a nonsense answer from this privileged guy.”
But Nadella did more than deliver a mea culpa; he explored his own biases—and pushed his executive team to follow suit. “I became more committed to Satya, not less,” says Microsoft chief people officer Kathleen Hogan, the former COO of worldwide sales, whom Nadella promoted into her current role soon after the kerfuffle. “He didn’t blame anybody. He owned it. He came out to the entire company, and he said, ‘We’re going to learn, and we’re going to get a lot smarter.’
That makes me want to join Microsoft to follow him :). Very impressive.