There’s no good way to lay-off employees in a recession, but some ways are better than others.

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A recession forces almost every business to make difficult decisions. 

Whether it’s cutting back on discretionary expenses, finding a smaller office space to work out of, or (worse case) letting go of freelancers and employees, companies must do whatever they can to survive. 

SafeGraph is in a fortunate position entering this recession (we are still hiring and were profitable in 2019). So we will not have to go through the grueling pain of letting our colleagues go (but I have been there before in past companies). However, many of the 100+ of the companies I am an investor in had to do layoffs in the last month and I wrote this piece for them.  

There is no good way to lay-off employees during an economic downturn. But some ways are better than others. 

Here are some rules and tips for those companies falling on hard times during a recession…

Never, ever, lay off your A-Players.

This may seem obvious (why would any company ask its best people to leave?), but countless companies tell their highest performing people to go. This is really, really bad.  

If a company lays off just a few A-Players, first, it loses all of their contributions. Great employees are great because they bring a lot more value than average employees. 

But there are second-order consequences too. The remaining high performers will become fearful for their job when they see A-Players let go and will start looking for work. And once your high performers are looking for jobs, they are not going to be focused on helping the company. 

A company that is experiencing hard times and distress needs all its amazing people focused on making the company better. Never lay off your A-players.

And even if your A-Players are in an area of the company that you need to lay-off (like maybe you need to cut your restaurant marketing team), keep the A-Player and move them to another team to make a contribution. 

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Here’s How Your Start-Up Can Not Only Survive the Recession But Actually Come Out Stronger

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It is April of 2020 and we’re entering a significant recession.  As they say, winter is here. 🥶

While each downturn is different, there are common ideas and practices that have been proven to work from one recession to the next. 

Here are some of my thoughts from a geezer that has scars from the crashes of 2000 and 2008.  Some of these are obvious and some are non-obvious but hopefully, they will help you manage your business successfully and grow while others merely try to survive. 

Get the CFO on your side.

The CFO has much more power in downturns than you think — do everything you can to get her on your side.  If you are selling to a company, see if you can sell to the CFO. 💸

If your product can save the company money, they are going to be much more interested in using your services. In a recession, finding cost savings becomes very attractive. If the CFO is your advocate based on the numbers, you are going to have a much easier time selling.  🤑

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For example, open-source solutions (starting with LINUX) really took off following the dot-com crash. This is because companies realized that they could replace super-expensive SUN boxes with cheaper (yet still powerful) LINUX units. Many for-profit companies benefited from this trend.

If you are a SaaS company, prioritize customers that are doing what you are doing in-house.  Often you can find companies that are paying over $1 million dollars a year to do what your software does for $60k.  And yes, your software might only do 80% of what their in-house solution does… but is that extra 20% really worth $900k+/year? Probably not. 

This is also true in the B2C world — in downturns consumers look to save money. Groupon was the breakout company of 2009 because they rallied around saving groups of people money. Sometimes capital constraints can spur innovation. 

If you can find a way to save your clients’ money and get CFOs on your side, you can grow your business during a recession. 

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The Ultimate Guide to Moderating a Virtual Discussion

How to successfully have a great online video discussion.

Lessons From McLennan Community College's Virtual Educator - Zoom Blog

I have hosted hundreds of one-conversation dinner parties over the years.   

Moderating a great discussion by video has a lot of similarities to moderating a great dinner party but there are a few key differences.  

Quiet is golden

When hosting a great dinner party, you want to make sure you are in a quiet room so everyone can hear each other.

When hosting a virtual discussion, sound quality is also very important.  You want to have a discussion with the microphone on for all participants. The conversation will be much more organic if no one needs to be on mute.  That means all the participants need to be in a quiet place or have a very good headset.  

The Best Gaming Headsets for 2020 | Reviews by Wirecutter

Best discussions are 5-12 people where they can all see each other

The best discussions have 5-12 people.  The more the people, the better the skills needed for the moderator.  

Everyone should see everyone in the discussion so it is important that you view people in “grid view” (rather than speaker view).  Another nice feature of video chat is that they usually can put the people’s names on the screen (analogous to having nameplates for good dinner discussions).

How to do online Introductions

Usually when getting people together that do not all know one another, you go around the table and everyone quickly introduces themselves.  This is a good idea for virtual meetings too but it requires more moderation as it is not clear who is next. The moderator needs to jump in (“thank you Bill.  Susan: you’re up”).

Norms for discussions are important

Just like a great dinner party, you need everyone to show up on time and be engaged and present.  For virtual discussions, everyone needs to be present and not checking Twitter or another screen while the discussion is going on.  

A good moderator needs to enforce these norms and call people out that might be straying or looking less engaged.

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Silicon Valley Meets the New Proponents of the 10th Amendment

The newest threat to innovation in the U.S. is the increasingly local technology regulations.  Small start-ups are increasingly have to work with dozens (and often hundreds) of regulators — and that means they will have to raise much more capital and slow their offerings to market.

It is now the fashion for individual states (and often counties and cities) to each institute their own and wildly different types of regulation on technology companies. The immense technology giants have the resources to deal with regulatory minutiae (in fact, they welcome the complex regulations because it further entrenches their power).  

It is not regulation, per se, that hurts innovation.  It is competing (and often contradictory regulation) that impedes regulation.  

Historically, most technology has traditionally been regulated at a federal level. 

But many markets outside of technology (from auto sales to car insurance) have been regulated by states … and some even by cities (think of zoning laws, rent controls, sales tax, and more).  

For instance, markets like insurance have traditionally been regulated at the state level; those 50 insurance regulators make innovation very difficult because firms essentially have to create 50 different products — one for each state. In addition, insurance firms have to spend a large part of their time lobbying legislatures and worrying about upcoming elections that could be a systemic risk to their business. The productivity growth for insurance therefore is much lower than one would expect with software. 

The same is true for cable companies, which were regulated at the city level and have to operate in thousands of different jurisdictions (some overlapping) within the U.S. This makes serving customers very difficult and is one of the reasons cable companies have had historically low customer satisfaction and low Net Promoter Scores. 

Another thing that comes with regulation is corruption — especially at the state and local level.  Many cities and states have endemic corruption problems because so much is riding on creating a law that benefits one company (or industry) over another.  That type of corruption is much less likely at a federal level because the stakes are bigger and thus is much more scrutinized. 

The internet is a fresh landscape where productivity growth is accelerating — partially due to the fact that most of the regulations have been federal. The tempo attracts smarter people who want to work on harder problems and not be curtailed by bureaucracy.

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Why Specific Positive Feedback is So Important.

Not all feedback is created equally.

There are two kinds of good feedback: constructive feedback & specific positive feedback. 

“Constructive feedback” occurs when you give someone feedback on how to improve on the work they’ve done. 

For example, if you’re taking a golf lesson and your instructor suggests you shift your weight a little to the left to improve your form, this is constructive feedback. 

It’s specific, targeted, timely, and helps millions of people every day. It helps to get rid of non-productive habits in favor of productive ones.

Constructive feedback (for good reason) has been the practice of choice for many great managers, coaches, parents, friends, and leaders.

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“Specific positive feedback” occurs when you explain to someone what they did well. 

Most people think this type of feedback is a pat on the back and a “great job.” But it’s more than that. It’s dissecting the WHY and HOW behind someone’s good work. 

Giving specific positive feedback is hard because you generally have to spend a lot of time with them or see many variations of their work to catch what they did well. 

For example, you might have to watch someone take 100 golf swings before they shift their weight correctly and you can point out what a great swing they had and why (even if it was by accident). 

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The New Status Game for Companies: Fewer Employees

Bezos believes that you should be able to feed your team with just two pizzas

Crazy thought experiment: Imagine a new type of company that decided to only do what it was really good at and essentially outsourced everything else.

Because revenues of private companies tend to be secret, most venture-backed companies have historically bragged about how many employees they have.  A CEO will say: “we went from 100 to 200 employees last year” as if fast employee growth is always a good thing.

But this is changing: there is a new status game brewing between companies concerning who has the fewest number of employees, centered around who is engineering greater amounts output with less staff. Indeed, the freedom to iterate quickly is status. More resources along with lower headcount means that they can dominate new markets. This is because they are tripling down on their strengths.

In the future, those who achieve the greatest results with the least number of employees will be admired above all others; the key statistic to look at is the go-forward net revenues per employee because it best encompasses the company’s leverage. What matters is each employee’s productivity and how the business itself can scale?  

This statistic doesn’t just ring true for the technology space, rather any business should be aiming to maximize that metric. By doing so, every employee feels and acts like Warren Buffet; they’re investing their capital (time and skill) into the company. Every good CEO should be spending time trying to increase their employees’ productivity, which is the strongest form of leverage the company retains.

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Exit Transparency (on SafeGraph blog)

Over at SafeGraph, I write about why “Exit Transparency” is so important for companies and employees.

Since publishing yesterday, I got a ton of inbound from other CEOs and founders talking about what they do and also asking about how we do things at SafeGraph. We still have a ways to go at SafeGraph to be great at Exit Transparency (it is very aspirational) but we have made a lot of strides to be better at it.

Exit Transparency is about starting employment with the end in mind. When the employee eventually leaves the company (as all employees eventually do), what do they want to achieve and how to they want to grow.

More at: https://www.safegraph.com/blog/why-exit-transparency-can-make-companies-stronger

Why a “balanced” life is something to be avoided and not pursued

Much of mainstream wellness advice revolves around creating a “balanced life.” There are phrases like “work-life balance,” “balanced diet”, and “balance of power.” All of these are considered positive culturally and worth striving for. 

When it comes to balance in your own life, though, this advice can lead one astray. A life worth living is making choices — which means each person is going to weigh things differently. “Balance” implies that you need at least a decent amount of everything … but the reality is that you need to clearly make choices on important things that you are going to skimp on.

I’ve met a lot of people in my life. I’ve never met one that was “balanced.” Everyone, absolutely everyone, is weighted in the areas they care more about. That’s natural. That’s good.  

Some people weigh their lives towards their kids. They give up their job, their personal dreams, and often their friendships to focus on their kids. These people are not balanced. They are weighted. They have made the decision that the best use of their time is to focus on their kids. That’s their choice.  

Other people dedicate their lives to helping others in need. They sacrifice their own family and sometimes their own health for the “greater good.”

Everyone makes sacrifices.  Everyone makes choices.

None of these people are balanced because no one is balanced. We all make choices. We all weigh our lives in directions that we think is best. And sometimes we change those weights as we mature. And often we are wrong about the best weights. Balance, while sounding nice, is both impossible and undesirable to achieve.  

Balance makes a person mediocre at a lot of things instead of great at only a few.

Culturally, we are pressured to improve in areas of deficiency in the pursuit of an imaginary “balance.” There’s no one out there screaming at us to get better at what we are already good at. 

“Self-help” is a $10-billion industry. There are life-coaches, consultants, mentors, business-coaches and the like all helping people improve their personal and professional weaknesses. The reason so many people focus on their weaknesses is that it is much easier for others to point out weaknesses and give some tips on how to improve than to help you get better at your strengths.

Even customary employee performance reviews revolve around identifying areas of weakness in an employee, with the subsequent goal to improve in those areas. 

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Why hard work is so important (and still under-rated)

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To be one of the best in the world at something, you have to work hard. 

While this seems obvious, there are many people who don’t believe it’s true. Many people believe you can become great just working 9 to 5.  It’s not clear where this controversy comes from.

It could be a result of the fact that we can’t all agree on how many hours of work really constitute “hard.” Malcolm Gladwell theorizes that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to become a master at something.  But it is not just the hours … it is the obsession that matters.  

You cannot be great at something unless you are obsessed with it.  You need to be thinking about it all the time.  That obsession may consume you and it might not be healthy for you … but that is the difference between the great and the merely good.

Hard work is a prerequisite to changing the world. 

People who changed the world were workaholics. Look at Martin Luther King Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi, or Alexander Hamilton. They all put in many hours more than a standard 40-hour week. 

The difference though is that their work is an extension of who and what they are. 

They worked hard because it did not feel like work.  At least not always.

Actually getting 40 hours of work done in a week is rare.

There are very few people who can do world-changing work in a 40-hour week. I’ve never seen one. 

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M&A is a Power Law

Warren Buffet once famously stated that compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. Power laws rule much around us, but more so in the technology and business worlds. One fantastic deal, such as Facebook buying Instagram, can shift the bedrock of business everywhere. Despite the common belief that 80% of company acquisitions are failures, the remaining 20% can shape a new path for in that company – the expected value is still enormous and is definitely a worthwhile path if executed properly.

Many people mistake averages for value. Venture capital is exactly the opposite of this: missing the seed round of AirBNB if you had the chance to invest means you would be financially worse off than had you invested in 50 Theranoses. The difference is that in the first case you would make 1000x your investment or at worst 0, so the opportunity cost is immense. 

Power Laws also exist in company acquisitions.  

The Power Law of Company Acquisitions is why companies continue to make acquisitions. In the few cases it does work, like Google’s purchase of YouTube, the gains can continue to reap dividends decades later. Fundamentally, most of the best acquisitions are contrarian in nature; otherwise, they would have been bought by another company already. And sometimes, like the YouTube acquisition, there are only a few companies that could have acquired it successfully – the key is to stay within your circle of competence. 

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Financially Drowning on $300k a Year

Exorbitant Salaries don’t make for Exorbitant Lifestyles

Here is an interesting paradox: the world is experiencing the largest bull market in history, but fewer than one out of five Americans feel like they’re living the American Dream. Many of these people have incomes ranging well above six figures, in the vicinity of $200-400k, and still worry about making ends meet. 

In 2018, the Department of Housing found that a salary of $117,000 is considered low income in San Francisco. Effectively, making six figures puts one into poverty in SF (if you are taking care of a family). Sadly, this is not a trend isolated to the Bay Area. There is a financial disparity amongst people who are in the top 2% of earners in the U.S. who live in expensive areas, and not because they can’t afford a yacht.

All-together, these families are earning a tremendous salary by any standard (often more than $300k per year), attending the most prestigious graduate schools and coming from upper-middle-class backgrounds. The scariest part is that these are not people you’d expect to be struggling. In fact, if you took and average U.S. family of four and told them that a family who made $300k/yr – the top 2% of income in the U.S. – was struggling, they would laugh hysterically.  They would never believe you because the median US salary is $62k. It would be called fake news.

Unfortunately, this story is playing out across the country. Of course, it is not happening everywhere nor is it happening to everyone.  It is primarily happening to secular people that have kids and live in ultra-expensive places like New York City, DC suburbs, Bay Area, etc.  The inflation rate in those cities for core goods (housing, healthcare, and education) have been growing at a rate of more than 10% a year for the last 10 years. How do these elites manage to keep afloat? The short answer is that they’re not able to and the consequences could have a drastic impact on the future of our nation’s democracy.

Sisyphus’ Hedonic Treadmill

The Elite With No Savings (TEWNS)

A necessary piece of the puzzle requires imagining what these people look like; how fanciful are their lives that they feel like they are working class on $300k a year? People have a tough time believing this because on the surface, The Elite With No Savings (or TEWNS) are doing well. To paint the picture, these are families with two college educated parents, perhaps they met at an Ivy League school, with young kids.  They live in expensive cities, far from their parents, while paying off a mortgage. Daycare and expensive schools are a must for these families, eating into their bottom-line and leaving almost nothing for savings. 

For the top 2%, life should be different; they played the game well by delaying gratification and they went to a top school while knocking their academic careers out of the park. They passed the Marshmallow Test. Still, many are financially underwater after learning that there’s more to life than just academics.

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deeper article on why the famous Peter Thiel interview question is such a good one

Over at the SafeGraph blog, I write about why the Peter Thiel interview question (“what is a heretical view you have”) is so predictive. Take a look.

It reveals that most people hold conventional opinions and call them “heretical.” Almost everyone cannot come up with an answer that most people they know do not agree with.

What makes for a good answer?

One that sparks a unique view of the world and shows the candidate doesn’t think like their peers. This signals that the candidate:

1) thinks differently

2) is open-minded

3) is brave enough to discuss an unpopular opinion