Apr 19, 2015

Constraints - 6 months later

It’s scary to look back at how rough things were 6 months ago - complications from mononucleosis left me with 4 productive hours per day - and a new perspective on life.

My immune system is recovering now - but my body is still weak, mainly from the lack of physical exercise. To finally work out the exact problems and their treatments, it took a lot of persistence with a bunch of different doctors. I reached a point where I would accept conflicting diagnoses and just try everything any doctor said. Though my medicine regime was complicated at times - my recovery is well on its way!

On some level, embracing contraints played out as I’d expected. In bigger ways, I was surprised.

Constraints and growth

Founder Centric, my business, has thrived – in fact, it’s bigger than ever! I’m not one to shirk responsibility, and to be honest, there were opportunities to work with entrepreneurs in growth economies that I would have deeply regretted missing. On top of that, I had to take on other responsibilities in the company, like our work with Oxford University, and running finances.

I had find a way to work it out.

Given I had to travel way less, and I couldn’t teach for prolonged periods, I had to focus my energy on growing a teaching team, and building processes that instilled the quality I’m known for personally. Some of my more unique strengths are in curation, teaching using responsive techniques, and teaching teachers, so that was how I created a foundation for the new teaching team. I co-created a bunch of new content, and designed a way to teaching globally diverse students – different countries and cultures each week - with an Italian Job type team of teachers. Good entrepreneurs go start businesses, so hiring entrpreneurs as teachers means you need a repeatable on-boarding process; you’re going to be constantly training up new teachers.

Knowing I wouldn’t be able to pick up the slack if there were problems, I designed a resilient system. I made sure I had a strong team, and that we were over-resourced so we could easily handle those predictably unpredictable challenges. It was a team I could rely on as a whole, which meant I could take much needed time off so I wouldn’t burn out.

This is a typical consequence of contraints. Like putting your thumb on the end of a hose. The water comes out faster.

But in other ways, embracing contraints suprised me.

The Now beats The How

A lot of things that previously seemed important and complicated just shed away: There’s always been friction in Founder Centric about “what we do” – and in the past, I’d use my energy to twist myself to find a compromise for my partners. I didn’t have any more time or energy to build consensus among people who oscillated for and against growing a teaching team. There was work to do, so I simply focused on the simple answer: “we deliver programmes that teach people how to start technology businesses.” No more discussions around the benefits of content business models or if we wanted to design programmes and not teach them. I grew the teaching team. Done.

Your vision supercedes the structure, and even the team

Another surprise was around our ongoing conversations around vision and mission. In November, me and my partners were all asked about our 10-year vision for the company over dinner. As we circled the table, everyone declined, until it came around to me. I was suprised that I was the only one who had an answer. A month ago, I explained how my latest work in Africa had revealed a new type of online course, and how it was an obvious next step to acheive that vision. I was told, “you never put it that way before.” That was because I was focusing on how to make it appealing to partners who didn’t know what they wanted rather than just doing it - which finally revealed a subsidiary opportunity to build a product that was appealing to them.

I’d been struggling with incompatibility with the structure of our company and my partners’ variable motivations. They’d joined a teaching business, and the equity structure of the company meant their oscillating motivations to teach or not teach was slowing our pace towards that previously agreed vision.

From there, I realised that my continued vision for better entrepreneurship education exists on its own, and at this late stage, the question of whether or not my partners participate in that vision is actually peripheral. My constraints caused me to execute on what was clearly important, not peripheral. This led to me leading the projects that not only to greater impact for our company, but became the engine of growth and the main profit centre of the whole business.

Gary Vaynerchuk once called this The Clouds And The Dirt: focus on the clouds (your vision and strategy) and the dirt (mastering your craft) - and don’t worry about hot air in the middle. Stuff like process, structure - and even team and consensus - should follow the clouds and the dirt.

Having limited time forced me to do that, and experiencing those results helped me to understand what he meant.

Return on investment for different types of work

The last big surprise was more personal. Being on-site doesn’t have the same physical energy demands as being on-stage, and I’ve found higher return ways to use my energy: facilitating and building tools that help teachers and mentors are the big ones.

And my writing has always been back-burners to accomodate these other things I thought were important. Once I finally had things under control, I got back to my book, Decision Hacks and have seen massively accelerated growth for a few hours of relaxed writing per day. In fact, in a week, the Decision Hacks mailing list outgrew the Founder Centric mailing list built over the last 2 years.

It’s not that focus acheived that in and of itself, but more that realigning my time investment to reflect my own priorities flushed out the high-return activities.

Nothing’s changed, and yet everything’s changed.

I still have a huge email backlog. I still can’t drink alcohol.

But I have full days if I’m not teaching. The business is doing much better, there are better opportunities in front of me, and I’m in a position to both seize them and have more down-time from my life.

I don’t really have a clear takeaway from all this yet, and I’ll be penciling out summer plans soon. My health is improving! Africa is calling me back! And Decision Hacks is rising!

I know I’ll be planning a lot of relaxed writing time, and training trainers in sunny locations - a happy synthesis of health contraints and growing a business. The rest will take more thinking. I still have some decompressing to do.

What am I up to these days?

I’m a new parent, and prioritising my attention on our new rhythms as a family. I’m also having fun with slow creative pursuits: making a few apps, writing, etc.

Work-wise, I’m trekking along at a cozy pace, with a few non-exec, advisory roles for cryptography and microchip manufacturing programs.

In the past, I've designed peer-learning programs for Oxford, UCL, Techstars, Microsoft Ventures, The Royal Academy Of Engineering, and Kernel, careering from startups to humanitech and engineering. I also played a role in starting the Lean Startup methodology, and the European startup ecosystem. You can read about this here.

Contact me

Books & collected practices

  • Peer Learning Is - a broad look at peer learning around the world, and how to design peer learning to outperform traditional education
  • Mentor Impact - researched the practices used by the startup mentors that really make a difference
  • DAOistry - practices and mindsets that work in blockchain communities
  • Decision Hacks - early-stage startup decisions distilled
  • Source Institute - skunkworks I founded with open peer learning formats and ops guides, and our internal guide on decentralised teams