Louis Bidou

documenting my journey

At Sketchfab, my job is to help the CEO and founders on everything organization related, to keep it smooth as it grows. My goal is to create the conditions for our organization to scale in a non-violent way. To get there, I believe in healthy team structures and psychological safety as basis for personal development and organizations performance. I act as main point of contact, both for our U.S. and French entities, for our accountants, banks, lawyers, and providers. Internally, I supervise our People efforts, including recruiting and benefits, onboarding and personal development, team building and internal communication, and advice the founding team on organization listening and emergence. As our team is still small, I have been handling these roles by myself for more than two years. It's a lot of very small things you should not forget about, but it also requires to be able to step back and think about the organization and its dynamics as an independent living system.

Everything has been fine and gently scaled for more than a year, but a few months ago, I reached a point where I was swamped by those very small things. They were too much of a mental charge: “Did I pay this invoice?”, “Is there coffee left?”, “We haven't heard from this customer about payment in a while, right?”, “I should ask her to forward me this countersigned NDA”, “Ok, let's update the calendar as they are both off next week”, “What's this mail from the bank about again?”, “Time to plan the quarterly reviews of the team”, “I need to review the format of this goals slide today, and share the monthly metrics to our investors”, “Let's plan a little briefing with her on preparing a job description”, “Ah, and our remote teammates are going to Paris next month, correct?”...

I needed to take a deep breath and reorganize, otherwise I'd stupidly need to recommend hiring someone to help me out. So over a month, I paid extra attention to the way I was working and tried to find solutions to bring some attention and focus back in. Bottom line was the belief that focus wins.

Results came from better leveraging the simplest tools I was already using everyday: board, calendar, and inbox.

BOARD

For several years now, I used a very simple yet powerful notebook to keep track of my todos and notes: Evernote, but recently decided to move to Trello.

— THREE LISTS —

Over time, I figured it was best for me to gather everything on a board made of three lists/columns: “In two”, “In silence”, and “To unlock”

• IN TWO. This column lists all the tasks I can start killing in two minutes. I realized there is actually a lot of those. The barrier to entry of these tasks is so low it's easy to start doing it even if I only have 15 minutes before my next meeting. It typically includes:

• Order 50 hoodies • Ping the team for staff expenses receipts • Send a recap about this to the Founders...

• IN SILENCE. Here are listed all the current projects requiring a deeper focus. It needs some time to start jumping into it again and move the needle. This includes:

• Update the way we model churn in the business plan • Prepare a framework for postmortems • Map the yearly team event project...

• TO UNLOCK. It gathers all the initiatives I need someone else’s input in order to move forward. These pending tasks are the worst, because the risk is either to forget to follow up on them or to try very hard to keep them in mind, ridiculously increasing your mental charge. Some examples are:

• Paul to validate the sales commission structure • Lawyer to advise on next steps for A. visa application • Accountants to share a first draft of the books...

— NOTES ON CARDS —

Basically, all the meetings notes, thoughts, drafts I write down on a given week are stored in their own cards. For instance, if I am attending a meeting about our company analytics, I will simply create a new card for it, and gather all my notes there.

— PROJECTS MAPS —

I also use Trello to break down upcoming projects in advance.

I try my best to leverage less busy times to start planning what the upcoming projects will look like: what will be step 1, 2 and 10, who will I need input from, what are the things that will for sure require time to be completed... The goal is to be as prepared as possible when projects actually start, most of the difficulties and potential road blocks being already identified.

It basically looks like a checklist. Examples are:

• GDPR compliance • Team event 2018 • Application for innovation grant...

So I have handy, on a single board, all the pending little things and bigger projects I need to either move forward or follow up with others on, as well as an idea of what the upcoming projects will require.

At the end of each day, I take 5 minutes to label in red the most important things I want to focus on the next day (the idea being to figure out what’s critical to do if my day were to end at 1pm), and in orange the rest I should dive in. Once again, goal is to decide and plan now, and be able to focus on execution the next morning.

CALENDAR

Google Calendar is often an essential part of the suite of tools we use everyday. It’s powerful to plan meetings, but I now also leverage it as a reminder for recurring todos.

I realized my tasks include plenty of small things to not forget about. The simple fact of trying to keep them all in mind was a huge mental charge, disturbing me to be fully focused on important and more complex projects. So I needed a tool to list all those little and recurring tasks and simply get reminded of them when appropriate. I ended up leveraging the 1:00-2:00am slot in my calendar to add recurring events.

From 1:00 to 1:15, I now add recurring tasks to be taken care of in the morning, and from 1:30 to 1:45 those to focus on in the afternoon, and apply them some recurrence. While building this structure, I paid attention to organize reminders in a way that helps me organize my time most efficiently: as our team is split between Paris and New York timezones I keep things I need everyone's input for mornings, pending conversations to follow up on with our partners for Tuesday afternoon, mindless archiving and payment todos for Friday end of day when tired of the week... Basically, for each recurring event added, I took time to ask myself: “When does it make the most sense to work on it?”

I also turned on a daily notification via email, to receive in my inbox at 6:00am my calendar for the day. It of course includes meetings, but now also all the recurring tasks that are due today.

Examples are:

• [Recurring PM] Finance: Update business plan – Monthly on day 1 • [Recurring PM] Payroll: Send wage slips to Paris team – Monthly on the first Friday • [Recurring PM] Finance: Transfer cash from PayPal to bank – Monthly on the second Friday • [Recurring PM] Office management: Review and order supplies – Every 2 weeks on Friday

I found this little tweak to be extremely powerful. It indeed takes a little bit of time to identify the recurring tasks that could fit in this structure, and to create the events in your calendar with the appropriate recurrence. But once done, it becomes a no-brainer. You simply forget about them, and don't spend time to think about when it's best to take care of them. And more importantly: you forget about potentially forgetting them, freeing you up some mental charge for core projects.

INBOX

My inbox was the last part I needed to review. I realized I receive many kind of emails: urgent and/or important requests from the team and our partners ; conversations I got cc’ed in just for my information and to be able to step in if necessary ; forwarded NDAs, invoices, receipts... and I send requests and documents I need to follow up on.

I now leverage labels to organize conversations depending on the level of attention they require, and have teached my inbox to filter incoming emails for me.

— LABELS —

I have already been using labels for a while on Gmail, but mostly as folders for archiving conversations depending on their topic. For instance: “Accounting”, “Finance”, “Legal”, or “People”. I was already also using sub-labels such as “Recruiting”, “Onboarding”, “Vacations”, “Health”, “Culture”... But goal here was to work on bringing focus and attention back in. So I needed to take a closer look at what kind of attention each email required. I ended up creating two new labels:

(1) PENDING

Every conversation I need to keep taking a look at are now tagged as PENDING on top of their usual topic-specific labels. This is something I manually add when I feel it’s necessary. And every week, on Tuesday afternoon, I go through all those emails and follow up. This way, I’m sure nothing falls into the cracks.

(2) LATER

Based on the Founders' Time Management framework Alban introduced us, I now have a safe place for less urgent conversations. Each time an email comes in, if I consider that doing it now would disturb my attention and that I‘d better bulk it with others later in the day or the week, I label it LATER and mark it as read. So now, I have a pile of mindless and/or less urgent things I can dive in when I’m tired at the end of the day, or during Friday afternoons.

— FILTERS —

I also started to systematically create action filters for any email I receive.

Examples are:

• Matches: FROM:(support@justworks.com) SUBJECT:(“Justworks invoice for”) – Do this: MARK AS READ, FORWARD TO accounting+providers@sketchfab.com • Matches: FROM:(payments@sketchfab.com) SUBJECT:(You received a payment) – Do this: MARK AS READ, APPLY LABEL “Accounting/PayPal” • Matches: FROM:(spectrum@email.spectrum.com) SUBJECT:(Your Spectrum Business bill is now available) – Do this: APPLY LABEL “LATER”, MARK AS READ

Results come right away: incoming conversations or information got automatically forwarded to the right person, or labeled the right way. It saves a ton of seconds, but most importantly again, prevents you to be disturbed with all these things that could wait or be managed automatically.

To conclude, I found very useful to pay extra attention to the way I was working during a month. I ended up sticking to very basic tools I've been using for years. I now simply use them a little smarter, to better fit with my missions at the moment. I'm convinced this structure neither works for everyone, nor for me until the end of times. It's always a constant optimization loop. As Guy Kawasaki puts it, “There is no right or wrong, there is only what works for you and what doesn't.”

Two last things that helped me a lot in this process:

  1. In the spirit of getting things done, don't forget to check tiny things off of your list as they come through – it is often more efficient to open an email once, instead of sorting it in many different ways and reading it 5 times before actually killing it ;
  2. Don't spend too much time thinking about personal organization and using dozens of different tools. Goal remains execution.

At Sketchfab and for a couple months, we were used to leverage Fridays late-afternoon to share best practices about personal and teams organization. Goal was to basically bounce ideas to work smarter.

Alban, co-founder & CEO, learnt a bunch of things during Sketchfab early days at Techstars. And he once shared with us a framework to help startup founders organize their time. The idea is to evaluate how important and urgent each task is before diving in.

If it’s important and urgent, you should do it yourself on the spot. If it’s important, but not urgent, do it, but later. If it isn’t important but time sensitive, make sure someone else takes care of it shortly. And if it’s neither important nor urgent, simply forget about it. Don’t do it.

An very actionable way to move forward when things pile up. For founders, but also anyone else working in a small team.

A group of MIT researchers looked at the age of successful U.S. entrepreneurs in the recent years.

Studying new businesses, narrowing it down to those with a high-tech startup profile, and including many more industries than just consumer-facing IT, they found that the average age of their founders, by the time they started their venture, was in the early forties. Not the young-graduate-wearing-hoodie profile we may have in mind.

They show that older entrepreneurs have a significant higher success-rate, and that professional background plays a critical role. “Relative to founders with no relevant experience, those with at least three years of prior work experience in the same narrow industry as their startup were 85% more likely to launch a highly successful startup.”

This actually bounces on a previous observation at one of Firstmark Capital event with their portfolio companies' founders and early employees. I was surprised to not see any founder in their early or even late twenties. All looked at least in their thirties, if not older.

Starting young can of course work just as well. But looks like there may not actually be a deadly countdown to absolutely start our company before 30.

Source: https://hbr.org/2018/07/research-the-average-age-of-a-successful-startup-founder-is-45

Consider a brand new private company about to launch, and whose pitch is to offer a package of several services to make your daily life easier, better and cheaper.

In exchange of paying a yearly subscription fee, you will benefit from a bunch of services with amazing discounts, or even sometimes for free. You can not choose to pick only one service or another, as you basically pay for the whole package.

Among many services the company plans to offer, here are a few.

The company's pitch includes providing its customers with a year-long access to cheap transportation: networks of subways and buses in all cities that run, if not 24/7, long enough for you not to be obliged to rely on taxi or private drivers services at all. You can almost sell your car, as the new venture plans to offer cheap train lines across the country as well. You can use these transportation services to go to work in the morning, meet your friend who lives at the other end of the city at night, or go on vacation surfing a thousand kilometers away from your place. This will work anytime on weekdays and weekends, for super cheap.

The same company will offer utility services. As part of the subscription you will pay for, you will benefit from a reliable and continual access to electricity and gas, at your place but also everywhere you are, anytime. When you go back home from this friend’s place after a warm dinner cooked with the electricity his place is equipped with thanks to the same private company, lighting will follow you on your way back home so that you will never have to walk in the dark.

It is safer, and safety is another service this new venture will grant you with. Within the same plan, you will take advantage of a 24/7 security service that will make sure your probability to be assaulted is as low as it could be. And if this unfortunate event happens, you will just have to call a direct phone number to ask its agents to come and provide free assistance, anytime, even on Christmas Eve. If a fire or gas leak starts at your place, you will call another phone number, and specialists will come within 10 minutes to help your family out, for free again.

Within the same yearly plan, your children will have the possibility to benefit from free and quality education, from the first year of kindergarten to the last year of university. The company will provide people enrolled in its programs with world-wide recognized degrees, maximizing your children chances to get a pretty decent job. And in case they do not succeed in finding a job, the company will commit to provide an insurance. They will receive a basic monthly allowance and free advice to get back on track.

If life gets harder, you will have the possibility to move in a new apartment at a ridiculous price.

As part of the same yearly subscription, you will enjoy going to the doctor anytime for free, be paid back for the medicines you need, and even have access to the best health specialists to treat your cancer for free.

And if one day you have to suit someone, or defend yourself in court, the company will put you in touch with a lawyer who will help you out. For free again.

This new venture looks great! And it looks even nicer when you know that it will undertake generous corporate social responsibility initiatives. The company will integrate into its business model to be compliant with ethical standards, the spirit of the law and international norms. On top of that, every few years, all the customers will be entitled to vote and choose its CEO. Pretty neat.

The only thing you have to do is to subscribe to its yearly plan. To make things even easier, the venture will accept you to pay-as-you-go or at the end of the year. And to make it even more fair, your invoice will be calculated as a portion of your earnings of the previous year. Even though you will of course pay with real money going out of your bank account, the currency will then be more a fair amount of efforts than an amount of money. All customers will pay almost the same portion of efforts to have access to the exact same services. Thus, you will pay just the right amount.

I would buy that, definitely.

Luckily, this organization exists already, and has been existing and improving for centuries. It is called the State. It provides people with everything described above, and even more: maintaining healthy international relationships, defining standards to protect our environment, boosting research and innovation, supporting national industry and agriculture, preserving and spreading cultural heritage, promoting tourism, defining guidelines for spatial planning, not forgetting people with handicaps...

All this in exchange of a fair amount of effort. Definitely one of the best service I have been subscribing to so far.

I have been discussing with many friends and entrepreneurs looking for interns to help them every day. They have very few money and may be tempted to hire the first person applying, with the excuse that his/her tasks will not be of high added value. But I don't think it is a reason to complete our teams with average performers.

Execution is the key challenge startups are facing. We need people who are able to get things done smartly, and who do it fast, or at least faster than others. Yes, we may have to pay a premium compared to the average intern compensation to attract those serious people, but I do think it is worth it.

Let me share with you a story I have been told a few months ago. A growing New York based startup, which raised a Series A round with one of the major VC fund on the East Coast, has been hiring apparently-good interns for months. Even if investors urged the team to switch to hire experienced people on key positions, passionate interns kept up joining. Finally, the investors admitted they have never seen a team attracting such reliable interns. The founders paid special attention not to hire the first student applying, but really looked for a good fit. It paid and continues, to a certain extent, to pay off.

Of course, it's tough to build a growing and sustainable machine with team members in the context of an internship, but I believe we actually can get the ball rolling pretty fast with passionate people in their 20s jumping on our projects.

... and you will help them to become what they are capable of being.

Here, Goethe may have given one of the best advice to people hiring young professionals.

I had the chance to discuss with a top-executive at SoundCloud to have his feedback on what would be, to him, the smartest professional move of a soon-to-be graduate interested in innovative projects but not ready yet to launch his/her own project. His advice was clear: “Go in a company where you learn, where you develop a framework of thinking, and where you are treated as a real professional.” Go be treated as what you are capable of being.

I feel that's the beauty of growing startups today. If we have the chance to find a project meaningful to us, a team we trust and admire, and an organization that gives us the bandwidth and support to do our best work, there is a fairly honest probability we will learn a lot. Join this transparent company in which we can work closely with experienced people, benefit from leadership vacuums, and make a name for ourselves.

There is no such is as being treated as what we ought to be.

My friend Nicolas and I had the chance to meet a Managing Director at The Boston Consulting Group to talk about business models cultural institutions could find on their digital content. The bottom line of his answers was all about AND, never about OR.

Will virtual cultural experiences shut down museums? His answer was basically no, simply as the digitization and the move to free music did not empty concert halls. It's not digital music OR concerts, it's digital music AND concerts. Same for universities. MOOC's did not move students interests from regular curricula to online classes. Yes, traditional methods are disrupted, but both coexist.

I think there is actually a lot to learn from this “AND not OR” way to see the world, both on a business and a personal standpoint. It's a less passionate and more complex way to figure out how something is going from point A to point B.

Brian Halligan, co-founder and CEO of HubSpot, illustrates leaders' duties with the image of a bus trip: set direction, pick up people and make sure there is enough gas in the tank.

First, set direction, or define the strategy. It has to be clear and shared enough to inspire people to join the trip and help you en route. They need to be excited about it. Second, choose the right people to pick up, and know when to let some hop off along the way. Also pay a lot of attention to retain them as the trip goes. Third, make sure there is cash in the bank to get to the destination. And I'd had a fourth one: get the ball rolling. Make sure you help people achieving their mission.

Decision making evolves as a startup grows, but those duties seem to be the bottom-line of every successful leaders.

Source: https://hbr.org/2016/03/how-decision-making-evolves-as-a-startup-grows

Fred Wilson reminds that side projects were a meaningful part of the innovation ecosystem in the early 2000s. Now people are moving away from them toward doing a startup, which is not always a good thing.

A reason may be that today the effort to build and launch something that can reach broad adoption is harder. You now have to develop your solution for many devices and OS while you could focus on desktop web back in 2003/2004. It is also much easier to quit your job and get some seed funding.

To USV's partner, there was something great about the ability to experiment with an idea before committing to it. When it didn’t work, it didn’t work. No need to pivot to save face or get investors whole. Just shut it down and start thinking about another idea.

Experimentation is critical and we should have lots of it. But a full-time commitment matched with a significant amount of money from day one is not ideal in many cases. Side projects have an important role to play in the innovation economy.

Source: http://avc.com/2016/03/side-projects/

I recently worked on a paper on L'OREAL talent acquisition practices, and realized they actually have a very lean, opportunistic and individualized approach: hiring the best fast, and projecting them inside the Group.

When asked about the main HR challenge L'OREAL was facing, Frédérique Scavennec, VP of Global Talent Acquisition, replied me: “Today, it’s mostly you who choose your company, not the other way round. I’m not fighting against Danone, Nestle, Dior, or Chanel anymore. I’m now fighting against Google, Microsoft, Blablacar, or Uber.

I'll write later about the key competencies on which L'OREAL is hiring, but except for positions requiring very specific skills such as finance or IT, they do not have any job descriptions. They do a lot of exploration starting from the person: they discover a talent, and then try to find a good position for her/him, acting as what they describe as a “business driver” who anticipates business needs. So very early in the process, it’s all about projecting a profile somewhere inside the Group. “If you want to move walls, you move walls.” L'OREAL always finds a solution for high potentials they are afraid to lose. It’s a continuous “ping-pong game” between the Group and the collaborator to define where they go together.

If HR can be lean in a 80,000-people organization, I am sure lean startups can organize HR.