Startups and Photography

My principle creative outlet is photography. I’m (slowly) getting my photos up on Flickr – but most of my photos are up at @tvladeck on Instagram, and on tomvladeck.tv – my “media” domain.

I’ve noticed recently that there a number of philosophical parallels between running an early-stage startup and being a photographer:

Two things really matter.

A photo captures a moment in time through the view of a composition. A startup attacks a market with a product designed to solve a key problem. In both cases, there is a function of perception, and a function of action. You perceive the moment, and then compose the shot. You find the problem in a market, and design a product to solve it.

Category Photography Startups
Perception Moment Market
Action Composition Product

So what about the team? And marketing? And… everything else? Remember I’m talking about an early stage startup. You are the team. You haven’t achieved product/market fit yet. And until you do, nothing else matters.

There are lots of things to worry about.

And even though only two things really matter, there are so many things to worry about. Especially if you’re really interested in photography or business more generally. But remember, these things only matter if they help you do better in the two things that really matter. These are means to an end – not ends themselves.

Photography Startups
Lens Tech Stack
Aperture/shutter settings PR
White Balance Finance
ISO Settings Accounting

It is an art of exclusion

You define a photo by what you decide to leave out of the frame. You can’t create things in the frame, you can only eliminate all but a certain portion of the view in front of you. That portion becomes your shot.

A startup is in a similar place. Instead of a hemisphere of light to whittle down, there are endless problems and markets to choose from. But you can only choose one. You have to exclude.

Minimum Viable Decision

Every organization I’ve ever worked with has struggled at some point with decision-making. Decision-making is tough. But there are ways to do it better.

Here some common problems we encounter in decision-making:

  1. A decision is never made
  2. Decisions don’t get enacted
  3. Decisions get revisited at random

It’s clear why any of these three things can be majorly disruptive to an organization. A decision is a commitment to a certain course of action. If there are no decisions, it may be unclear what course of action is being pursued. If the commitment is not followed, the commitment was worthless in the first place. And finally, if the commitment is always up for questioning, it holds little value (it’s hardly a commitment at all).

Why can decisions be hard to make and maintain? Here are a few common reasons (among many more):

  1. There’s a lot riding on the decision
  2. The consequences are highly ambiguous
  3. Lack of buy-in across actors responsible for carrying out decision

The more that’s riding on the decision, the harder it may be to make. The more pressure there will be to “get things right”, and therefore to spend a lot of time preparing. When consequences are ambiguous, it is harder to evaluate the available options and therefore to choose amongst them. In both cases, there is a strong temptation to revisit decisions before they’re carried out. We have an innate tendency to abhor paths that may contain regret. And of course we’ve all seen people exercise personal “pocket vetoes” on decisions by simply ignoring them.

How do we address these issues in organizational decision-making? Many tangential arenas have codified practices that address similar concerns: agile software development, design thinking, and the validated-learning approach to product/startup development. Many areas of business fall outside these domains, but the approaches pioneered there can be applied more widely.

Inspired by them, I’ve toyed in my head with the concept of a “minimum viable decision” (MVD).  A minimum viable decision is the smallest decision of any consequence that can be taken as early as possible in any process. Instead of waiting to make the “right” decision, see if an MVD is available. Your team might never agree on what the “right” decision might be, but an MVD will help you chart a path forward and gain critical information about your problem domain.

More broadly, it’s about applying the concept of rapid iteration, feedback, and agility to decision making across all aspects of an organization, rather than just the areas where these concepts have gained the most traction.

What are some examples of an MVD?

Instead of making a big decision You make a small one
Promoting a junior developer to a management role Have a junior developer manage a small project
Commit to a direct marketing strategy Try direct marketing in one neighborhood
Get an accountant Talk to an accountant
Hire a telesales role Make 100 cold calls yourself

What are the advantages of a minimum viable decision?

  1. MVDs require less organizational capital to take
  2. It is easier to come to an agreement to an MVD than a Big Decision
  3. Often MVDs are almost always reversible
  4. MVDs are not “bet the ____” moments (e.g., the company, my career, this product, etc.)
  5. By reducing the impact of the decision, it’s easier to implement
  6. Smaller decisions are easier to measure

I’m not advocating that you don’t make big decisions. I am advocating that you arrive at them through a series of smaller, micro-decisions. As Jeff Bezos puts this whole concept brilliantly:

When you look at something like, go back in time when we started working on Kindle almost seven years ago…. There you just have to place a bet. If you place enough of those bets, and if you place them early enough, none of them are ever betting the company. By the time you are betting the company, it means you haven’t invented for too long

Concluding thoughts: 

  • Make smaller decisions
  • Use smaller decisions to get information to feed into future decisions
  • Start making commitments early on in any deliberative process.
  • If you get to a point of deep divergence in your team, you have waited too long

Get to Yes.

I recently listened to* Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher, Bruce Patton, and William Ury. (Amazon Link)

A negotiation is a process by which multiple parties with shared and diverging interests come to an agreement. This could be two nations at war, or it could be two friends figuring out where to eat for dinner. At an abstract level, both situations involve multiple parties figuring out how to meet their needs. The skills the authors discuss apply widely.

This is why I think this book is a must-read for everyone. Everyone. Most people, I think, will casually dismiss the domain of negotiation as belonging exclusively to the legal and business communities. But as the authors argue convincingly (but also somewhat briefly – I wish they’d gone further), everything done with more than one person involves negotiation in some sense.

As communications technologies and the zeitgeist is drive organizations to a flatter, more loosely-coupled network of individual agents, effective negotiation becomes ever more important as a personal skill.

I’m so glad I came across the book. Here is my interpretation of the lessons they teach:

The Bogey.

The enemy of the book is “positional bargaining” – the form of negotiation that most of us are familiar with. You want ten, I want twenty, we settle at fifteen. You and I start with a position (a statement of the outcome we desire), and we move along a linear path between the two positions until we find a point somewhere in the middle that is acceptable to both parties. Or – nothing on that “line”** is acceptable and either the two parties give up, or one “wins”.

Because of the narrow range of outcomes, positional bargaining tends to create win/lose scenarios, which in turn breeds those expectations at the outset of a negotiation. Negotiators may go into a discussion really wanting to “win”; others may accept “losing” to preserve the relationship. The authors rightly reject win/lose or lose/win mentalities; if one party walks away from a negotiation feeling like they “lost”, it’s likely the agreement won’t produce a “win” for either party.

The People and the Problem.

The authors repeat, as a mantra “separate the people from the problem”, but I think this is actually fairly inaccurate relative to the substance of their arguments. I would say it’s more accurate to describe their conclusions as “treat the people as an entirely separate problem”.

There are essentially two problems on the table during a negotiation: the central problem of how to satisfy the interests of both parties, and the emotional health of the people and relationships of the negotiating parties. There’s the “problem” and then there’s the “people problem”. The authors do not advocate ignoring the people problem – in fact they argue that it’s critical to spend real time and effort strengthening relationships between the two parties.

Positions and Interests. 

Positions are statements that outline one possible way of meeting the interests of a negotiating party. What’s not important is the specific mix of things in the position; what’s important is that the mix is acceptable.

Positions are usually expressed as a single point in a space of interests – but often they don’t hint at the dimensions in the negotiator’s interest-space (i.e., the things they care about). So look past the expressed positions to get to the underlying interests behind the position.

Understand their interests better than they do. This should be your goal. Not only will you gain serious “people points” by showing that you care about solving their problem, but you will be better equipped to find a mutually advantageous solution.

 

For example, if you’re dealing with a landlord that wants you to move in quickly, understand why exactly that is – is it because there is a mortgage payment looming, or is it because she’s going away on vacation in a month and won’t be available to handle things while she’s away? The different underlying interests permit different ways of meeting those interests. Get past the positions and understand interests.

The interest space.

It’s likely that both negotiating parties have a very high dimensional interest space, although from the stated positions it may not appear so. After understanding the dimensions of the space you’re working in, “probe” the space by inventing options (“positions” pulled out of thin air) as a way of determining which regions of the interest space are acceptable (i.e. move in in a month and pay more rent vs. move in today and pay less). Make it clear that there are not commitments at this stage.

This is the natural consequence of getting off the “line” of positional bargaining. Once you open up space by looking at the interests behind the stated positions, explore it.

The BATNA.

The Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. Every negotiator should go into a negotiation knowing both their own BATNA and the other side’s. Because a negotiator will only accept an agreement that improves on her BATNA, BATNAs are the source of relative strength in a negotiation – not “power” or resources per se. A very powerful company has little leverage over an employee that has received a competitive job offer from someone else.

So understand your own BATNA, and work to improve it, before going in. Also understand their BATNA, and work to worsen it, if you can and need to. Filing suit against the other side is a common way of lowering their BATNA; now their BATNA includes defending themselves against a lawsuit. Improving your own BATNA and impairing the other sides changes the landscape of the negotiation in your favor – perhaps even before it begins.

Conclusion

I hope you will read the book. For me, it was an instant classic. Negotiation is such a common thing in life, it’s shame it’s not taught more widely. 

*yes, I’m a shameless audiobook fan. 

**In my head, I converted pretty much all of their discussion about positional bargaining, issues, etc., into a discussion about the benefits of operating in n-dimensional space as opposed to operating on a line (2d space).

A “Third Way” in Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship is often portrayed as an endeavor in which the entrepreneur has to essentially go crazy to succeed. Extreme dedication, total distortion of the work/life balance, and very high risk are some of the hallmarks of our conception of starting a new business (or even more risky, starting a new business with a new business model or product).

Moreover, entrepreneurs are pressured to maintain a totally positive face to the outside world about the state of their company. In San Francisco, “we’re killing it” is almost now an inside joke because of the ubiquity of that response when someone asks an entrepreneur how their company is faring. Most of these companies are not “killing it”, and the entrepreneurs probably know that.

It’s actually almost folk-wisdom that this quality (believing your company is “killing it” at all times) is a necessary mental quality for an entrepreneur. If they could be completely honest with themselves, the thinking goes, they would never be able to face the consistent stream of failures and setbacks without giving up. But maintaining this facade is hard, and it only makes the risks higher; a less than satisfactory end result now means abrogating promises and not meeting expectations that you yourself helped create. 

One has to think that there is a way to run a company that doesn’t exact such a toll. Leaders in the field of startup management, especially Eric Reis, have outlined new ways of thinking about starting a new business that permit new ways of behaving. Instead of being deterministic (i.e., the entrepreneur is in control of what the company will be and do, and effort will determine success) and linear (i.e., there is constant progress towards success), most startups are nondeterministic (you may succeed but you will not control how) and nonlinear (you will experience small failures constantly until you succeed, perhaps wildly). Deterministic/linear thinkers (or those who perceive that others think that way) are under more pressure to maintain this facade relative to nondeterministic/nonlinear thinkers.

In all, I think there’s a different way to be an entrepreneur. One that encourages work/life balance. One that doesn’t demand a stark dissonance between your public face and private reality. One that recognizes and embraces the nonlinear nature of startups – i.e., that it’s ok not to be “killing it” all the time.