A Sense of Duty in Startups

fire truck

I’ve never read a blog post about duty and startups (although I’m sure they’re out there), but it’s something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. Some people (founders and employees) have a sense of duty towards the work they do. Others do not. And that sense of duty is one of the elements that separates awesome entrepreneurs and employees from everyone else.

There’s definitely a gray area between “duty” and “responsibility”. In fact you can Google “duty vs. responsibility” and get a lot of results. Here’s an example. I don’t think everything it describes about duty completely applies to a startup founder or employee, but a lot of it does. I also found this article on duty vs. responsibility for CEOs very apropos.

Clearly, we (as founders and employees) have responsibilities. And most people in an early stage startup get their jobs done and handle their responsibilities. But it’s those that have a sense of duty–a higher moral standard that they hold themselves accountable to–that go beyond expectations and really make a difference.

For me, duty is about caring. Or more specifically, caring to a level beyond the norm.

Those with a sense of duty are your go-to-guys, the founders you’ll back over and over, and the employees you want to hire right away when you start something new. It’s cliche, but some guys will take a bullet for you, and others won’t. And I wouldn’t expect most people to take a bullet for you as a founder or fellow employee, but there are a few that just will.

When you find those people, hold onto them.

That sense of duty gives them the ability to take their performance to another level. It gives them the internal fortitude to struggle through all the shit that you’ll face early on with your startup (and later too!) and push through.

One last thing: founders have to be careful about abusing an employee’s sense of duty.

It might be easy to rely on people over and over knowing that they’re compelled to help/work/struggle. In fact, if you want your startup to succeed, you’ll have to rely on those people! But as much as duty is something that comes from within a person, I believe it needs to be recognized, and people’s work needs to be rewarded. In my experience, most people that do have a sense of duty towards the work they do, don’t need a lot of external validation, but they still need some. They don’t need trinkets, baubles, or little perks–they need to know that the person they’re taking a bullet for / following blindly on an insane startup journey, recognizes their value.

Photo courtesy of aeroworks.

Launch Your Startup When You’ve Already Won


The tech industry is overly-obsessed with making noise, being self-congratulatory and too often, focused on the wrong things. We look at PR as a big win. We celebrate financings (although we also spill plenty of digital ink about not celebrating them too; and yet they’re common on tech news sites).

There’s a time and place for making noise about your startup, but you’ve gotta be clear on whether you’re doing it to feed your own ego and make yourself feel good, or if you’re doing it strategically for some understood and measurable benefit. Making noise can definitely help–but more often than not we do it for the former reasons and not the latter: we want to feel important, we want people to recognize our “accomplishments”.

One of my best portfolio companies has never publicly launched.

And yet, if we compared their metrics to a lot of similar companies (and others in my portfolio), I’d bet they would be on top. They’re absolutely killing it. Why? Because they’re 100% focused on their users and providing an awesome experience. Press, publicity, blogging, tweeting, shouting from rooftops, etc. doesn’t help them. In this particular case their customer isn’t an early tech adopter either, which is even more reason to ignore the “rah rah” bubble we live in and stay focused on real growth.

This portfolio company has also raised two rounds of financing. The last round was a good size and brought in some of the top investors out there. It might have been a bit harder to get investors’ attention without being in the tech news cycle every few months, but their team + mission + traction got them to the right people, and those people invested.

When you finally hear about this company in the tech world, they’ll have already won.

That’s my goal for them. They’ll have ironed out the wrinkles, solved most of the hard problems, and they’ll be scaling like crazy. They’ll have an unfair advantage over everyone else that invested any iota of their time making noise about what they were doing–because the noise doesn’t drive results.

Launching a startup is almost a silly concept. It’s a single point in time that has almost no bearing on the ultimate success of your business. But it can actually lead you down the wrong path to failure, getting you caught up in things that don’t really matter. Launching doesn’t solve your #1 problem (whatever it might be).

Most people are swayed by the spotlight, by the opportunity to be recognized as an awesome entrepreneur who’s doing something amazing. We’re almost uncontrollably attracted to the celebrity of startups. But unless you can genuinely draw a line between your public efforts and your startup’s success, you’re wasting valuable time. Launch your startup when you’ve already won. Hell, don’t even bother launching–just build an insanely awesome business, and the right people, investors, partners and acquirers will know what’s going on.

The Building Blocks of the Web

LEGO building blocks

Building applications for the web (or mobile) has never been easier. And it will continue to get easier, as more companies develop what I think of as “building blocks”. These aren’t the low level fundamentals needed for web technologies to work, but the abstracted, easy-to-use components that more and more people are able to literally drag and drop into place and create something with.

Yesterday, I got an email from a 14-year old developer asking questions about how to do a couple things with the GoInstant chat widget. He had read about another developer integrating the widget with McCodes, a platform for building multiplayer games.

Three things stand out to me about this:

  1. It’s awesome to see young people coding and trying things out.
  2. The building blocks emerging for web/mobile development make it possible for a 14-year old (or anyone) to become a developer pretty easily.
  3. The building blocks blend together and connect easily.

Some of the building blocks are very popular or have turned into large businesses. GitHub is probably the best example. It’s a piece of “infrastructure” that tons of developers use, which has encouraged more open source sharing, and allows for easier development. GitHub has raised $100M+ in funding. Docker recently raised $15M, another infrastructure play.

These tools, along with others such as Bower and npm are meant to “outsource” aspects of the development/deployment process, so developers can focus on what matters.

That’s the beauty of building blocks–they’re designed to make a developer’s life easier, and let the developer focus on putting together a new experience/product that will benefit his users or customers. Developers can be up and running so much faster, and that’s only going to accelerate in the future.

There are lots of building blocks out there. If you want to add a piece of functionality to your application, you don’t have to build it from scratch–just find a company or individual that focuses on what you want and grab that. The building blocks of the web are getting easier to stitch together too. Zapier is a building block for connecting APIs, so you can piece things together more easily. And a lot of building blocks are designed, out-of-the-box, to talk naturally with other building blocks.

Most web and mobile applications are pretty straightforward. They’re CRUD apps (Create, Read, Update, Delete), which let you view, add, edit and delete data. Add a bit of social to the mix too, so people can share stuff as well (which could be considered an edit). And that’s it. Break down most applications and they have the exact same core functionality. Making an app interesting, unique, sticky and meaningful is insanely hard. How do you mix and match the core aspects of an application into something new? That’s what developers need to focus on–not the individual pieces, or how an app is deployed, or where data is stored. The user experience, the packaging, the story, the unique twist on a well-known feature … those are the things that matter today.

Everything on the web is being turned into a component.

This includes the core infrastructure you need (hosting, data storage, deployment), functionality, and even testing, analytics and instrumentation. You can now drop a couple lines of code into a mobile app and A/B test it. That’s a small component. You can add forums, store locators, e-commerce, chat, video and more, all with small snippets of code that you don’t really have to understand. And many of these things are extensible, and most of them play nice together. Hull looks interesting. So does widgiFire. Just two examples of the web as components.

That’s the future for a lot of web and mobile development — finding the right pieces and stitching them together. There will always be a need for more sophistication and “looking under the hood”, but most of the people that do that will be the people building the components. For the rest of us, we can focus on the vision we have for our app, and delivering amazing experiences to our users by piecing things together like an awesome puzzle.

This “componentization” of the web also has profound affects on education. It’s getting easier and easier to learn how to code (even if the coding you’re doing isn’t low level), which should attract more people into coding and building things. My hope is that this in turn unleashes people’s creativity and willingness to try things out, and we’ll get more people building more things, whether as entrepreneurs or not, and that’s going to help more people succeed in their careers (whether they become developers or not). When we get to the point where everyone can be a developer (competent enough to hack a few things together), we remove a serious barrier to entry that holds people back. We make the web that much more accessible, and open up way more possibilities.

Photo courtesy of wallyg.

Ben Yoskovitz
I'm VP Product at GoInstant (acq. by Salesforce).

I'm also a Founding Partner at Year One Labs, an early stage accelerator in Montreal. Previously I founded Standout Jobs (and sold it).

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