Advice and Fallacies

One of the toughest things in business is when you get well-meaning advice from advisors, investors, or friends of the company who are valuable but might hold some ideas or ways of approaching problems that just aren’t applicable to your particular company or situation. They might be right most of the time, and it might have worked for them in the past to build a huge success, but it doesn’t mean it’s right for you, right now.

This is especially a struggle for Automattic because so much of what we do is deliberately different from companies that have come before us. The below is a sensitive-info-scrubbed version of a comment I made on an internal P2 in response to someone who had met with a close friend of the company who had said we should “hire more business people, and more people like so-and-so, who have a background in and passion for data analysis and structure. He also shared his ideas about what the additional business hires could be responsible for, such as P&L responsibilities for specific products.” The person he had talked to was asking why we weren’t following that advice.

The first part was easy, because so-and-so was actually leading hiring for a position around data and the early results were going well. The rest I ended up writing more about, which follows. It was only meant for internal consumption, so read it as such, but I got enough requests to share the comment publicly that I wanted to clean it up and release it for y’all.

On the “more biz people + P&L” side, it’s an area we disagree.

We’ve had more “business people” in the past, and found it just didn’t move the needle in the same way that investing on the support, engineering, and design side did. They also tended to generate more meetings and work for other people than was commensurate for their contributions.

We’ve also experimented with giving leads P&L responsibility for products and groups, but ultimately it was awkward because we don’t really want leads or teams focused on the loss or costs of what they’re doing — we just want to grow our core metrics and revenue in a healthy and accelerating way, and let Ops and myself worry about overall profit or loss for the company, costs of people and services, capital requirements, etc. We’re still at a stage where our primary goals are investing in growth and product excellence, I wouldn’t want a P&L concern to be a distraction from that, and that also takes us into the territory of different teams having “headcounts” of people they can hire for the year, or budgets set ahead of time and that they’ll lose if they don’t use, zero-sum accounting between teams and more balkanization you often see in larger organizations. When anyone thinks about P&L at Automattic, I want it to be holistically and with a long-term view, not for a single team or product.

It gets backs to the fallacy we talked about and agreed to avoid at the [ leads] meetup, which is the business equivalent of Great Man Theory: the idea that a deficiency in the business or product will be solved by hiring someone senior to be in charge of that thing. Example: Automattic is bad at marketing, we should hire a CMO. (99% of the time when this is suggested it means an external person, because if anyone internal was good the problem wouldn’t exist.) It’s an easy thing for anyone to fall into, you can see it in [a recent internal thread].

This must work sometimes, because it seems to be a near-universal affliction of VCs on startup boards. It also is a little bit of a bikeshed, because while it can be difficult to understand or feel like you can have an influence on something fundamental to the product, like say the signup flow, most VCs have large professional networks and can have long and vigorous discussions talking about potential people who are executives in a given area and their first or second degree connections to them. Of course, like many of us, VCs are consumers of tech media which tends to ascribe all the success of an organization to a single person (like Sheryl Sandberg for Facebook not falling apart, or Adam Bain for revenue at Twitter). However often the problem has root causes more fundamental than a single person could shift.

I subscribe to a more environment-driven approach, that if you break down a problem into its component parts you can address them individually, often with relatively simple next steps, and build things from the ground up, rather than the top down. If you can’t do that, then it’s best to be candid that the area is not a priority and make sure that’s in line with what you’re focusing on instead. In this process leaders will emerge or if the effort matures to a point where one joins as a new hire he or she will have the resources, groundwork, and environment to succeed.

So in summary: always go back to first principles of decisions. Hires are seldom panaceas. Someone being successful in a role at another company doesn’t mean they actually did the work, or were the cause of the success. If there’s an area you’re weak, try to figure out the root causes of why you’re weak, and where possible try to improve the environment that creates the problem before pinning the turnaround on a “Jesus hire.” When you improve the environment it makes it much more likely a new external hire will do well. The majority of success or failure is a result of the environment, at least as much as the individuals involved.

14 thoughts on “Advice and Fallacies

  1. I resonate with this post a lot, thanks for sharing. You hit the nail on the head in so many ways..

    As of late I find myself with thoughts that are very contrary to the norm and it’s hard to believe in them when everything you read is opposite to what is considered “correct”. Your perspective is refreshing, both from the CEO’s chair and as an investor / advisor.

    Something I’ve been focusing a lot of energy on is finding our “nucleus” as I call it. Like you, we kind of suck at marketing, but then it’s not our nucleus – technology / security is. Everything else is wrapped around that like bacon on a filet mignon – the core is still the meat, the bacon just adds some awesome flavor to it.

    In any event, thanks for sharing. We find ourselves in a similar position, at a different scale of course, but similar situation none the less.


  2. Success is seldom due to the actions of an individual. It usually takes a diverse team to really accomplish something that is truly disruptive. Furthermore, success in the past is NOT a true predictor of future performance. This is especially true when an individual moves from one culture to another, When I hire, I look for talent, adaptability and flexibility. I look for people who will do whatever is necessary and who will never say “that’s not my job.”

    As for the comment about P&L responsibility, you have to balance this with the requirement (at least from my perspective) that people understand how they or their department actually contributes to the bottom line of the company.

  3. Yes Matt. Sheryl of FB does a great job, but she is just the head of a team, the entire team or people involved do as much as possible to ensure that the team is kept and rated high.
    So it’s not a single person’s responsibility. Thanks for the amazing insight

  4. Well meaning connections tend to be quite generous with advice and the knowledge that they share based on their own experiences is of course, valuable. Conventional wisdom, traditional practices and well known approaches are utilized and are successful for a reason. They work. HOWEVER, Automattic is not your ordinary company (based on what I have read) so none of the nuggets of information being given to you is really of any value at this point until it’s put to the test by your team.

    As for “bad at marketing”…well, marketing as defined by…how marketing is done right now I suppose? I may be biased but my belief is that the investment should be on creating the best possible product and provide the best possible support if the idea is to have something that withstand the test of time and change. The market is fickle, but quality will almost always trump “flash” any day. I guess I am still idealistic even at this point in my life.

    Because of its uniqueness, the only way to really find out what works is to do it the way you guys have been doing it: know your values, know your vision, find people who share it and spread the word.

  5. In the video, ‘In Search of Excellence’ (companion to the 1982 book), Tom Peters, Bob Waterman, et al., have an insightful interview with a very young Steve Jobs (complete with pirate flag flying proudly outside) – whereby Steve echoes the themes referenced here. (ex. an aversion to hiring “professional” managers. Reason: they really don’t know anything.

    1. I think it’s all about context in most cases. Specific settings and employee types may require someone to oversee them. Some only work well under supervision and for some work cultures that is acceptable and even expected. Doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. I just don’t think it’s suitable for a company with a lot of self motivated and independent thinkers. Would be very stifling.

  6. I honestly say that I have read every single word in the post and its amazing and I know that I do not have anything of worth saying or commenting here but please please please accept my comment and my regards. I just want to appear in this comment list and feel happy about it.

  7. Funny how the last part of your summery was the part that hit me the most! “The majority of success or failure is a result of the environment” Time and time again I have encounter this at my place of employment. Thanks!

  8. Spot on and timely: I’m actually discussing this very thing with my manager at work, pointing out how many coworkers can do and know more than just what their job title implies, and that it’s a pity not to tap into that, instead choosing to call on new faces for help and ideas — be it new employees or external agencies. Likewise, talking about how everyone could benefit from more openness about processes and decisions instead of keeping teams in their respective silos. I do hope to help change things, as it would be quite a welcome sea change. Here’s to 2015! 🙂

  9. I really love the emphasis on (individuals) investing energy into creating environments for success rather than pinning achievements / advancements to “Jesus hires.” I also like how you articulated a preference for a ground-up, build-out type growth and, based on my experience, can agree that it warrants a more reliable, focused, quality outcome. Oh, and the point about grappling with advisers who don’t always appreciate that you’re purposely creating something different? I get that 🙂

    Understanding we share some core perspectives on building teams, I’m particularly curious what your thoughts are on:

    1) how to best inspire radical new growth / advancement in a complementary discipline (say, design) or a service extension (say, 24/7 emergency support).

    2) the traditional ethos that “if it’s not being measured, it’s probably not a priority.” And, if you feel comfortable sharing, how do you measure team leads success at Automattic?

    Excellent post. Thanks for sharing!