Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Five things I learnt from FI

Five things I learnt from Founder Institute

Today I'll be graduating from the Founder Institute (FI) entrepreneurship program. I'm super happy about this as it’s been four months of hard work to prove that I can create a meaningful and enduring technology company.
The company I've created called Two Square Pegs is developing a web platform that makes it easier for mature professionals to find meaningful and flexible roles in small businesses that need their skills and experience. Social good projects have been a particular passion of mine for a while now.
FI is a particularly tough incubator program and typically less than 50% of people graduate. In actual fact of our cohort from Melbourne, only eight from the 26 who originally started will be graduating.
As a result, I wanted to share some of the things I learnt throughout the program.

1. Back yourself

There is no way of graduating from FI if you don't back yourself or your idea. The FI schedule is tough, miss a class, miss a group meeting or miss an assignment and you'll be lumped with a special assignment (with a crazy amount of work) or potentially be asked to leave the program.
As a result, throughout FI many students dropped out due to work commitments, whether through increasing workloads or being sent overseas/interstate on assignments.
This taught me that if you aren't ready to leave your job or make some sacrifices, or work hard, are you really serious about your idea or being an entrepreneur?
To quote another FI student Jo Sayer who writes in her article Lessons learnt at the Founder Institute in Melbourne:
“It is intentionally tough. But so is the real world. Each week you spend about 8 hours in classes and group work, and an additional 15–20 hours on your weekly assignment. The program runs after hours, so you can still have the pleasure of your day job at the same time. Most of the people who leave the program do so because they don’t want to work that hard or they can’t keep up.”

2. Lack of time isn't always a bad thing

FI sticks to a pretty rigid schedule with classes, group meetings and assignments each week. The regular and tough deadlines for the FI assignments created an environment where you had to go out and “just do it”.
What I've learnt and am still surprised by even now, is how much work I have achieved in such a short space of time by simply “putting it out there”. You also become creative in solving problems, just because you don’t have the time to do things in a conventional way. It’s definitely a high pressure environment, but if you can stay calm, it leads to some great solutions and hacks.

3. It’s about the people and network around you

I’ve learnt as a founder that people are one of the most important aspects in ensuring your success. There are so many mentors, peers and people who helped me out by providing advice or filling in surveys or even referring the idea to a friend.
No one makes it as an entrepreneur without the support of a wider network of people who believe in what you do. Find those people, stay connected and make sure they know you appreciate them.
I wouldn't have made it to this point without the help and support of advisors, mentors, peers, family and friends — many thanks to you all. Thanks as well to Matt Allen and Sebastian von Conrad for all their hard work.

4. Get feedback early and often

The perfectionist in me would always cringe at having to show incomplete pieces of work to my peers or mentors. Especially knowing I could do so much better. I also had to explain why it was at that stage of “incompleteness” which I dreaded initially. However I learnt to get feedback early and often.
This created a process which made my work so much better for two reasons. I could get feedback on the different directions I could take in completing the task as well as a feedback on the idea for my proposed solution. This saved me time and resulted in better work.

5. Find time for other relationships

In the early months of the FI program I found myself working crazy hours. At one point, I worked two days straight without sleeping after receiving a special assignment. About two-thirds of the way into the program, I found the stress really getting to me. I wasn't getting enough sleep, worked long days testing the business and felt the pressure to constantly deliver great results in my FI work and other work commitments.
After a while my shoulders and neck became really tight and then… painful. I could relieve the pain temporarily through exercise and giving myself some down time to relax by reading a book or watching a movie. However, even these solutions which had always worked in the past, were becoming less effective.
One thing I realised was that, I had neglected friends and family. My thinking was that I would catch up and see them after the course was finished, as I was “too” busy. Fed up one weekend, I decided to stop working and start reconnecting. The interesting thing was that after a weekend of just doing ordinary mundane things with the people I care most about (like cleaning, babysitting and having dinner together)…. the pain disappeared.
It stayed away as long as I stayed connected to those I cared about. As a result, I made sure to schedule at least 2–4 hours a week catching up with friends and family thereafter, even if it meant I missed some key events,that I didn't get certain pieces of work done or a certain amount of exercise in.
I learnt a big lesson, about how not to burn out. For me it’s to stay connected to other relationships in my life.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The age of ageism

Ageism is rife in a western society that elevates and fetishizes youth, leaving our wisest counsel in business and experienced business know-how outside of the picture. When the experts are unable to meaningful contribute – both business and the mature worker loses.
Many corporations replace their mature professional staff with younger staff each year, keeping just enough of the experience and knowledge they believe they need at the top of the management hierarchy. Middle aged, middle to upper management is often made redundant to make way for younger managers with “new” job titles, who move into the same role until they too reach their expiry date.

To be clear, ageism in the workplace is illegal but that doesn't seem to be stopping certain employers and especially not the ones in the ‘tech world’. Lisa Eadicicco from Business Insider recently reported that in a rather lengthy Hacker News thread, numerous software developers voiced their concerns about what happens once they hit age 30.

The fact is ageism is mainly about reducing perceived costs. Although older people have more experience in general, they also have families, earn higher salaries, and are less likely to put in crazy hours. Additionally, businesses wonder if these mature workers who are 20 or 25 years into their career are ‘tech savvy’ enough, and if they have kept their skills current and updated.

In The New Republic, Noam Scheiber who writes about ageism in the ‘tech world’ quotes a 40-plus developer whose department consists mostly of 20-year-olds

“People presume an older developer learned some trade skill five to ten years ago and has been coasting on it ever since.”

From a capitalist perspective why would you pay more money for someone willing to work less hours at the perceived same level of work. Think about it, this is not so different to our consumerist attitudes of “upgrading” our products. So too are corporations upgrading to a new model (aka younger worker), with all of his or her shiny new technology skills.

There has been a social move toward a task-based workforce from a relationships-based workforce over the last three decades. This is creating high-unemployment for the 45 and over whose skills are perceived as “outdated” and whose accumulated knowledge and experience are minimalised. If this trend continues, will we see people considered redundant at 35 as technology continues to shape all industries?

In a Forbes article by Krisztina Holly, people who start businesses when they are older (those 50+) have a higher rate of success due to their experience and networks. In fact there are twice as many successful entrepreneurs who are over 50 than those under 25. She writes:

“More experienced leaders tend to have deeper networks, experience managing teams, and better business savvy and skills for delivering on their vision.

“We must create an environment that encourages experienced talent to recognise new business opportunities.”

Are we creating a scenario where businesses are missing out on opportunities or are perpetuating problems because the experts are no longer a part of meaningful conversations?

Ultimately making money means building good connections. Good connections involve people with the experience, know-how and wisdom to make things work.

The question is, do companies agree?