Notes from the classic 2001 business book “Good to Great”

Data can point to commonalities of companies that go from being just good to being really great.

Published in 2001 as the middle in a trio of business books written by Stanford University’s Jim Collins, Good to Great is a classic of the genre. Though I’ve heard it cited many times, I only just read it earlier this year. The concept is a likeable one: Collins and a team of graduate students sorted through lots of data to find very similar peer companies, some of which accelerated into greatness and others which only treaded water. Then they sorted through to find what’s similar. Lots of stuff like this happens today — like this popular Medium post.

Twenty years later, the book still has value, even if many of the companies have faded from their greatness and it’s always easy to tease a business book. At its most simple, Collins introduces a simple framework that I’ve played with for my own company (his “hedgehog concept” is a way to communicate: What is that your company can do better than anyone else in the world that can drive financial success?)

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A respite from Philly Tech Week kickoff rainouts

Those closest to me are familiar with this painfully, long-running inside joke: these elaborate outdoor Philly Tech Week kickoff events I organize always happen with comically poor weather. Philly Tech Week is an annual, open calendar of events on technology, entrepreneurship and innovation that I help curate with my company.

That string of rainouts changed in May 2019, when an afternoon shower gave way to warm sunshine.

A beloved events producer of mine turned to me that afternoon and proclaimed: “We have turned a corner and won’t have any more rained out kickoffs!” Given that that 2019 edition was something of a dry-run for 10th annual Philly Tech Week to take place in May 2020, that seemed like a thrilling prediction. In 2020, we would have the largest, best-planned, most interactive kickoff ever, with the help of perfect weather, as I had always envisioned. This memory made me laugh out loud this week because, last month, I hosted the second consecutive all-virtual Philly Tech Week due to the pandemic. Fatima, you were right, no more rainy outdoor kickoffs!

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A few notes from my conversation with Guy Raz of ‘How I Built This’

For Technical.ly’s postponed, all-virtual Introduced conference, I closed out the day interviewing Guy Raz, the influential podcaster behind ‘How I Build This.’ He has a new book by the same name.

For those interested in economic development and entrepreneurship, the conversation is worth a listen. My colleague Stephen Babcock put together a nice recap, and here are a couple points I took away:

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We lose focus slowly

You’d be tricked into thinking there are most often big, grand moments of obvious distractions that you as a leader can turn down.

We lose focus, in our projects, organizations and efforts, not at once, but by slow trickle. You can’t stay focused with a single no, it takes constant vigilance. Lost focus comes with a 1,000 small questions no reasonable person would say no to.

A leader has to have a clear destination in mind and constantly remind herself of it. Sometimes, it will take grand moments of cleansing to undo many small moments gone unnoticed.

Because it is not something that comes naturally to me, I think often of focus. In 2009, I was thinking about how to fine-tune a focus on this very blog. In 2011, I made a resolution to focus, after a flurry of experiments. I did something similar when I turned 30. Entrepreneurial leaders have always advocated for obsessive focus, to be the absolute best and most powerful in one clear way, to strive for monopoly.

(Photo of Focus by Stefan Cosma via Unsplash)

What question is your work answering?

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Every company is an approach to answering some question. (Every nonprofit might be a policy failure.)

Many mistakes are made in choosing that question: it might be too ambitious, or too unambitious. It could be too niche, or not focused enough. The true addressable market might be too small. The question may not be a lasting one. You can ask a question too early or too late, with the wrong leadership, team or product. Some of that can be changed by a good team, so along the company-building journey, you must change your approach.

But don’t change the question.

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Little ways an organizational leader can show her team she cares about them as people

Pay them a competitive salary. Protect against mission and role creep. Give something clear to work toward and a strategy to employ to get there.

As an organizational leader, these are the foundations of developing a healthy relationship with your workforce. I’ve found there are other signs of an empathetic organizational culture that you can develop, without excessive budget needs.

These are examples of ways to show your team that you actually care about them as people. It goes a long way to develop the relationships you need to take on a big challenge, particularly without a pile of money.

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I changed a lot at my company. Here’s why beating a big Q1 revenue goal meant so much

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter a couple weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

Nobody wants to follow someone who made General in peacetime.

I’ve been thinking about that concept a lot lately (Ben Horowitz calls its Peace/War Time CEO). In 2017, after eight years of informally leading the tiny community journalism organization I cofounded, I named myself CEO. Up until that point, my cofounder Brian and I had survived together. We’d always find a way to last a bit longer, growing slowly and thoughtfully as we navigated treacherous waters.

That survival approach was rational for growing a local news company in the early 21st century,  a time in which consumers maintain very high expectations for free and independent journalism but have not yet been fully trained to actually pay or otherwise support its work in a post-advertising world.

But in early 2018, as I was finally feeling the great responsibility of the CEO title, I took stock of where my company was.

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How to fund small projects as a CEO

One unexpected result of becoming CEO of my own company is that I found myself without a traditional budget line I could pull from.

As we grew our company, we created a budget aligned with core functions. I stepped into a role in which I was overseeing them all, but I didn’t set aside budget for me in last year’s budget for myself. That sparked me to wonder how other CEOs approached giving themselves budgetary space to experiment, explore and trial.

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