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The biggest indicator that a company is struggling to adopt agile methodology is the visible presence of post-it notes.  This sounds strange because many agile practitioners are obsessed with post-it notes.

However, truly innovative companies who are authentically agile use digital systems to manage their scrum boards with products such as Jira or Trello.  Hard paper copies are not only cumbersome, they limit the level of detail and searchable record keeping that online systems provide.  There is a reason that Atlasssian is valued at over $10 billion and it’s because Jira and the like truly help with productivity.

So why are so many corporates addicted to their post-it notes?

It’s because post-it notes are great theatre.  In an office environment where everyone is watching everyone, it pays to appear as the champion of the shiny new trend.

And what better way to dramatically demonstrate your credentials in agile than by creating a physical monument in the middle of the office.  Not only are the colourful whiteboards of post-it notes hard to avoid, it gives the ‘scrum master’ a centrepoint to exude their presence and gain the attention of their peers.

The drama is of course completely unnecessary and wasteful.  But when a workplace is in the throes of adopting a methodology that focuses on increasing productivity, the good old post-it note is the top indicator that things aren’t working yet.

Dealing with haters

Adam-GoodesIn the recent racism saga involving Adam Goodes there was a view from critics that Goodes needed to develop ‘thicker skin’ and ‘harden up’.  From my own experience as an entrepreneur, I found deep sympathy with Adam Goodes because in all honesty; it’s not that easy.

When you start your journey as an entrepreneur there is an incredible sense of optimism as you chase a dream.  But it’s not that long until you start meeting the haters. And unfortunately in Australia there’s plenty of them.

From the high flying corporate to the fresh uni student, the most common reaction I’ve encountered is hostility.  “Well how about X?” and then “Oh, what about Y?” followed by looks of disgust, curled lips and crossed arms.  I’m a reasonably perceptive guy, and can tell the difference between someone who gives positive encouragement and constructive advice, from someone doing their best to challenge you in order to convey negativity.  And in many cases, it’s most certainly the latter.

But it’s not the hostile randoms who you bump into that get you down.  It’s the combination of the close friends and family who also display this behaviour.  Sometimes it’s the outright aggression and criticism directed towards you without reason.  Other times it’s the subtle investigative questions, keeping tabs on your level of success.  Or it’s the statements which imply you have a lot of free time and suggestions that you should start looking for a ‘real’ job.

Overall it all just adds up.  It’s easy to dismiss the random people, but when it’s the people you know and trust, inevitably you ask questions about your life.  You’ve chosen all these people to enter your life and many of them wish you the worst.  And if that’s the case, what have I built?

That’s when your world falls apart, and just like Goodes the stress of the situation can require you to take a break.  While it’s something that I’ve come to terms with, I totally understand how after a while…  the haters start getting to you.

Old made new again

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Before I found out about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I spent about four years being immersed in Aikido.  Unfortunately during those years I had the wrong view of what Aikido was and embarrassingly, I thought that the stuff from Steven Seagal’s movies was real.  With Aikido you were ready to kick ass in the streets!

Needless to say, I was absolved of those beliefs after watching UFC and Pride.  Even high level Aikidoka will admit that Aikido isn’t for that sort of thing, and that’s why you don’t see any top level or even low level fighters who actively use Aikido techniques in professional bouts.

So for years I paid out on Aikido, lamenting the time I spent doing it and generally just being bitter.  However the past few months I’ve come to realise that a lot of the concepts from Aikido are transferable to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and even provide an apt framework for improving your Jiu Jitsu game.

Firstly, there’s the concept of ‘ki’.  Basically in Aikido it is the word for energy, and the idea would be to harmonise with the energy of your training partner.  Mastering your ki and knowing how to control it is the key to mastering Aikido.  However, the concept of ki takes on a spiritual meaning, and often in Aikido the concept of ki was taken to extreme levels.  You can even find Aikido practitioners doing Dragonball Z style spirit bomb attacks, minus the destruction of the planet part.

Yet lately I’ve come to believe that the concept of ki is a convenient if not masterful framework to explain complex Jiu Jitsu concepts.   For example, in my own Jiu Jitsu game is that I’m able to apply incredible pressure on my opponents by balancing my entire bodyweight onto my knee, and pivoting that knee on my opponent’s belly.  Yet that explanation is lacking, it doesn’t come close to explaining the fact that I’m maximising the pressure I’m applying by contorting the hundreds of different muscles in my body to focus the force on a small surface area.  And while I’m doing that, I’m constantly readjusting my position and predicting the movements of my opponent.

However explaining this through the framework of ki implies all of those things.  By stating that I’m transferring my ki onto my opponent, it conceptually summarises every little action I’ve taken in applying pressure on my opponent.  Rather than spending ten minutes noting each and every thing I’ve done, I’m able to succinctly and accurately describe what I’m doing at a high level.  Rickson Gracie, the greatest Jiu Jitsu player in history, calls this ‘Invisible Jiu Jitsu’.

And so I’ve come to re-appreciate the old, and for me these ancient martial arts principles have come new again.  Being a strong believer in science, I’ve always had absolute distain for anything non-logical.  But from this perspective, I’ve come to believe that the concept of ki makes a lot of sense and so I’ve come to integrate it into my Jiu Jitsu game, lately to great benefit.

With that said, you won’t see me doing any Street Fighter hadukens, but I will be working this concept of energy and referring to it often.

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While WordPress may have started out as blog software, the platform has now truly matured.  Wordpress currently runs over 22% of websites on the Internet and is an application platform which is used in an incredible amount of different ways.  Founder Matt Mullenweg describes WordPress as a ‘kind of web operating system’.

For Matt, the journey in founding WordPress was somewhat unexpected.  As a child growing up in the state of Texas, Matt and his father would spend their recreational time together using computers.  While other children would mainly play outside, Matt connected with his father through the use of technology, and so he grew up with a strong familiarity with computers.

With that said, Matt passions as a teenage lay with Jazz music, of which Matt would later name WordPress releases after.  However in order to afford Jazz lessons with local musicians, Matt would exchange with them his ability to build websites.  Despite the interest in technology, Matt ended up studying political science at university but was able continue to honing his programming abilities on the side.  In particular Matt created his own photo blog, PhotoMatt, which he used to display photos from his other artistic hobby, photography.

As for WordPress, it did not exist yet, and at the time Matt was a hobbyist user of it’s precursor, b2/cafelog, an open source blog software.  As an 19 year old enthusiast, Matt would sneak into bars where b2/cafelog meetings were being held, and then socialise with the mostly older female users.  He was active on the b2/cafelog forums under the pseudonym of “saxmatt” in homage to the saxaphone, and began contributing code which he was asked to commit to the main release.  Matt recalls that moment as euphoric, giving him a rush greater than any chemical substance.

However b2/cafelog was not to last and the author of it Michel Valdrighi from Corsica mysteriously disappeared from the Internet for months.  Matt made a post on the forums about ‘forking’ the b2/cafelog, and another forum user Mike Little, who mat had never met before replied “If you’re serious about forking b2 I would be interested in contributing”.  Thus WordPress was born.

Though WordPress might have billions of users now, momentum in the initial WordPress versions would take time to gather.  To help publicise WordPress, Matt would ‘spam’ various internet forums, making posts about WordPress and making helpful suggestions to people that they might want to try the software out.  In the meantime, Michel the original creator of b2/cafelog reappeared and being pleasantly surprised someone else had picked the project up, declared WordPress the official successor and urging users to use it instead.

For Matt, the project remained a time consuming hobby which unexpectedly helped him to get a job at online giant CNET.  Seeing the opportunity, Matt quit university and moved from Texas to the Bay Area.  While the corporate environment at CNET was not ideal, Matt had the opportunity to work with and learn from some some of the best people in the business.  After a year at CNET, and as WordPress continued to gain users, Matt quit in order to start the company he now runs; Automattic.

WordPress itself is managed by the WordPress Foundation, also founded by Matt Mullenweg.  Automattic is a for profit enterprise which manages the enormous WordPress host WordPress.com and develops WordPress add ons such as Akismet and Jetpack.  Matt and Automattic continue however to have a strong contribution to the development of WordPress and the WordPress community.

Setbacks and criticism of WordPress mainly revolve around security concerns.  In response, Matt says that the system is secure so long as WordPress installations are kept up to date via the automated update system.  Thousands of big corporates and government organisations, including top US security agencies use WordPress as their system of choice.  Indeed with such a massive dedicated community, WordPress could have one of the most scrutinised source codes in history and most thoroughly tested.

If anything has helped WordPress become popular though, it’s the features which helped set it apart from the competition.  In particular, features such as plugins and theme which allow developers to create their own add-ons and share them with users.  This has become so popular that WordPress can now boast over 30,000 plugins of which the majority remain free.  Matt himself continues with his belief that while themes may be bought and sold, his preference is that plugins should be noncommercial as it promotes sharing within the community.

As for competitors to WordPress itself, there are many, but none with the userbase and reach of WordPress.   The competitors which include Wix and Weebly, have a combined marketing budget of over $250 million whereas WordPress has zero.  Matt attributes this to the difference between closed-off commercial software and free open source.

As for the future, Matt notes a number of specific challenges including better internationalisation, social media integration and mobile.  But with a recent investment of $160 million at the start of the year, Automattic has a significant war chest to begin expanding its team from the current 240 people to possibly more than double the number.

It is scary to think that WordPress runs over 22% of the Internet, yet historically has only had so few employees.  With far more resources, the sky’s the limit for Matt and the Automattic team.  For Matt, still a young man at 30, he is in WordPress for life and it’s still early days.

The Paul Bassat Story

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Startup Stars: This blog will now start featuring write ups on inspiring Australian startup figures.  This article retells the story of Paul Bassat, a cofounder of Seek from a Startup Grind Melbourne event.

With a current market capitalisation of over $5.6 billion and a presence in 12 countries, Seek is Australia’s most successful startup business.  However cofounder Paul Bassat recounts a humble beginning 17 years ago, one that is similar to the journey that startups go through today.

After studying Commerce and Law at the University of Melbourne, Paul worked at a law firm for six years.  Though enjoying the experience, he came upon the idea of advertising real estate on the Internet.  But after giving the concept a lot of thought, he and his cofounders pivoted towards creating a product aimed at the jobs market.

They felt the job market had a greater amount of opportunity, and so without a technical cofounder, the team began the search for investment.  Eventually they raised 1.5 million in capital, which even by today’s standards is an impressive amount for an early stage Australian startup.  The capital was enough to then go and recruit talented technical staff to build their job search platform.

Even though Paul himself did not have a technical cofounder, he does believe that having a technical cofounder is better than not having a technical cofounder.  With that said, a good technical cofounder is again much better than just a technical cofounder.

As a two way marketplace, one of the major challenges was to get users and employers onto the site. The supplier side was managed by approaching the large HR companies and convincing them to advertise on the Seek platform.  Being the early days of the Internet, Paul and his cofounders often had to explain not only the concept of online job advertising but also the concept of the Internet itself to corporate executives.

Though Seek did have strong support and investment, the the initial days the company operated as a startup.  In fact Paul recalls one particular experience when Chandler McLeod, a large human resources company, faxed through three hundred job advertisements at once.  Paul and the team then spent the weekend keying in those advertisements into the Seek system.

On the consumer front, Seek negotiated lucrative deals with NineMSN and Telstra which proved pivotal in driving user traffic.  This along with their impressive and easy to use technology, Seek had powerfully executed on their idea and began outperforming their competition.  Contrary to common belief, Seek were not the first company doing online job advertisements, but it was their execution which propelled them to market dominance.

In fact, Paul feels that being number one in a market is very important.  This is because there is a disproportionate benefit in being the top player.  Consumers and suppliers are much more likely to do business with the dominant entity as opposed to the number two, hence Seek has concentrated its efforts on a handful of countries as opposed to a small presence in every country.  Growth in Seek’s business has come mostly from international acquisitions rather than from organic growth.

This is not to say that Seek has not had competitive challenges.  In particular during the earlier days when Seek was worth approximately $30 million, the jobs giant Monster.com entered the Australian market and threatened market dominance.  Yet once again, Paul attributes Seek’s success against Monster to their better execution and also mistakes which Monster made over time.

After running the Seek business for 14 years as CEO and Joint CEO, Paul started to feel that his energy passion was not the same as before.  So in 2011 Paul left his role at Seek to work on various ventures including Squarepeg Capital, an investor in startups and also roles in Wesfarmers as a director and a Commissioner in the Australian Football League.

Paul remains active in the business and charity, and speaks fondly of his Seek experience.  He feels absolutely proud of the fact that he has played a part in the two major trends of his generation; the rise of the Internet and the rise of China.

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I took the plunge four months ago and left my stable corporate job to create my own startup. It’s been a wild ride so far and despite the hardships, I’m loving it.  But that’s not to say that I don’t have my regrets.

In hindsight I can clearly see that I could have prepared myself much better.  If I could turn back time, then I would!  But hopefully these tips below will be helpful to those of you who are still in the corporate world, and looking keenly at startups.

  1. PLAN IT OUT: Being frustrated with corporate life won’t happen all of a sudden; you will have felt jaded well in advance.  So sit down and actually write out your exit plan  Once you write something down, then things floating around in your head become much more tangible and it will help you to manage your emotional state.
  2. GO TO MEETUPS: There are heaps of startup events going on which are advertised on Meetup.com and Eventbrite.  Go to these events, learn about startups and meet people.  You’ll learn so much.
  3. READ THE LITERATURE: I never knew, but there are a few startup bibles which you absolutely have to read.  The main one is the Lean Startup.  You might think that I’m exaggerating, but I’m not.  Every person doing startups knows the Lean Startup and you should too.
  4. FIND A COFOUNDER: One of the biggest reasons startups fail is because of it having a single founder. Spend your time at work, socially and at networking events looking for The One.  If you’re going to spend 15 hours a day with someone, he/she needs to be a person who can bring real value to the table and be someone you can get along with well.
  5. CREATE A MVP: If you don’t know what a MVP is, you need to read the Lean Startup.  It’s a Minimum Viable Product and it’s what you create to validate your leap-of-faith assumptions that uphold your business case.  Validation is absolutely key, and doing so via a MVP can possibly just be a matter of hours and you’ll have learned so much.
  6. GET TECHNICAL: Even if you’re not a programmer, you can start playing around with WordPress or learning basic web programming languages like PHP or Ruby On Rails.  You may not even intend on creating your product, but by having some basic technical abilities, you will stand a much better chance of recognising when someone is trying to scam you on a quote.
  7. PREPARE FOR STRESS: Start testing yourself to see if you can put up with mental stress.  There’s a lot of it when you’re doing a startup, especially financial stress.  Have a think about how long you’re able to handle losses for and whether you would be willing to suffer the worst case consequences.  Because it could happen.

 

 

A fearsome double-leg

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I’ve been posting a lot about startups lately, but I feel the need to get this wrestling issue off my chest…

About a year ago I read a blog by Todd Tarpley, a man who is now a children’s book author. But in the 1987 he was a wrestling obsessed twenty-four year old man who dreamed of placing at the US freestyle nationals. In his diary, he wrote:

 

“Either I end my wrestling career now and be happy about what I’ve done, and move on with my life…or I devote myself to it 100% until I’ve done what I need to do.”

 

And so as a result he packed up his life in New York City and moved to Iowa to wrestle under the legendary Dan Gable and the Hawkeye Wrestling Club.  It took a while, but I ended up reading every entry in the diary which was about four years of Todd’s life.  Despite the fact that he had basically put his life on hold in order to achieve this goal, Todd did it and placed at the US freestyle nationals.

Todd’s story has had me thinking ever since.  With sports like wrestling, it’s generally understood that during your thirties your physical body begins a decline which you never recover from.  I’ve just turned 30, and I guess I can see the clock ticking away.  Recent injuries such as tearing my pec, which had never occurred previously, have proven to me that the decline has either started or is going to start soon.

For many years now I’ve had the goal of perfecting a technique known as the double-leg takedown, such that it would be an unstoppable move.  But even though I’ve spent hours doing countless repetitions, my double-leg is still very much a stoppable move.  To progress beyond my current level, I think some real commitment and hard work is required.

Similar to Todd, it’s a goal that I want to achieve.  I want a fearsome double-leg, and no amount of convincing me otherwise would make me want it any less.  There are many things which I can do when I’m older, such as intellectual pursuits, but obtaining perfection of the double-leg isn’t one of them.

Time is certainly running out and this is the kind of thing which if you don’t achieve while you’re young, then you’ll never have it for the rest of your life.  While I am thoroughly enjoying the startup journey I’m on, I do often think whether or not it requires me to sacrifice my pursuit of the double-leg, or am I able to have both?  Only time will tell.

Focus, my son!

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Exciting new business ideas often pop into my head randomly. Just talking with people and seeing things gives me a whole bunch of fantastic new stories to tell about how doing X and Y could change the world. Those who know me, know that I love discussing and pitching a new idea.

But while it’s fun to indulge in these dreams and then get excited in discussing them with friends, I’ve come to realise that it can also be counterproductive. The reason is that if you’re currently working on a project at the moment, you need complete focus to carry it through to the very end.

As per my previous article, 1% of a business is an idea and 99% of it is execution. So you really need to give an idea a lot of time, which may sometimes mean months or even years. In an article I read recently, it provided a quote from Warren Buffet; “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.”

Opportunities will come all the time. Some may even be presented to you without your seeking, opportunities to make heaps of money, participate in exciting ventures or be given an awesome job. But if you’re serious about an idea you’re working on, more often than not it’s necessary to say ‘no’ to these opportunities and stay the course. While Ruslan Kogan may call it being focused, I call it being committed.

So, even though talking about ideas is great fun, there is real danger in them. Don’t spread yourself too thin, good execution requires commitment and in turn that commitment requires you more often than not, to say ‘no’.

In a moment of epiphany, it occurred to me that mental fortitude is by FAR the most important and underestimated requirement for a startup founder. What I mean by that, is there’s a lot of crap which comes your way when you decide to be an entrepreneur, and you need to be able to deal with it. You need to be able to roll with the punches, but even if you get knocked down, you cop it on the chin and get ready to do it all again the next day.

To begin with, there’s the financial pressures and the understanding of the risks you’ve taken. Statistically, start ups don’t have a high success rate, and the likelihood is that you’re going to fail, and lose out financially. But hopefully just enough so that you don’t face absolute ruin.

Then there’s this sense of being ostracised from society. Everyone wonders why you left your nice cushy corporate job to do something very risky. And you start doing things like attending networking events, working on weekends and sending emails to randoms which no one else does. I’ve often read that entrepreneurs feel so different from nearly everyone they know and it’s true. You start realising that other people don’t think like you do, and it feeds a sense of alienation from society.

And working from home doesn’t really help much either. While some people thrive in solitude, I’d say that the majority of people have been habituated to work in groups through schooling and work, hence losing contact with other people as you beaver away can cause stress in itself.

And finally, there’s the doubters and the haters. Disappointingly, these aren’t just randoms you barely know, they’re often people you know very well. In Australia, I definitely feel that tall poppy syndrome is not just rife, it’s thriving, and it’s even there for people who haven’t found success yet. As a startup founder, you do encounter a lot of negativity, discouragement and sometimes outright hostility from people, but you just need to put it aside and continue trucking along.

Maybe I’m coming off as a real whinger here. I’ll admit, these are probably what you call ‘first world problems’. Regardless, they do result in stress, so along with the passionate highs of doing a startup, there are incredible lows. It’s just all part of the entrepreneur emotional rollercoaster and welcome aboard!

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I recently read an article by Gurbaksh Chahal a mega successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur. In the article, Gurbaksh states that ‘when it comes to business. 99% of the work is execution, 1% is only the idea’. I agree completely with this, and anecdotally it appears most people I’ve asked agree with it too. After all, an idea is just an idea, and it’s the execution which brings that idea to life.

Yet it’s interesting that in Melbourne at least, I’ve find that so many people are extremely secretive about the startup or idea they’re working on. In fact, I would say that while I’ve retold my startup plans to nearly everyone I’ve met, I am rarely told what people are working on in return.

Time and again I read articles about why startups fail and within the top 10 I have never ever seen ‘idea got stolen by someone else’ as the reason a startup failed. More often than not, bad products, poor management, infighting, lack of funding etc are to blame.

My personal belief is that the more open you are with your idea, the better your chances. This is just simply due to the fact that you will have tested your idea out on smart people many many times before you front up to investors. It gives you the chance to practice your pitch day after day, so that it becomes second nature to you. Most importantly however, by selling your idea to others, you inadvertently sell the idea to yourself. On a daily basis you are able to re-motivate yourself and reignite your passions.

With that said, being open with your idea also doesn’t mean detailing your business plan in ever public place possible. You bring it out specifically when you want to practice your pitch and/or receive feedback.

For me, it’s been excellent practice which I’ve really gained a lot from. Everyday, I learn more and more about myself and my startup business and I’m becoming far better at pitching that when I first started. If you haven’t tried, have a go at it yourself!!