What Can't Change

There has been plenty of talk lately, from Phil Sugar and Ben Horowitz and from me too, about how you have to be a different leader at different stages of a company’s growth. This is almost entirely true. But a tiny, important part of it is a crock.

What I notice about the greatest companies, and the greatest leaders of companies, is their commitment to changing as little as possible about their fundamental natures.

For a stunningly long time, Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook ran like very early-stage startups, valuing speed in everything they do, focusing ferociously on tiny details of the customer experience, creating a culture of individual accountability.

Instead of acknowledging like responsible adults their elephantine growth, they kept on attacking like rabid squirrels. Much of this energy comes from a founder surrounded by people telling him he needs to change, but who in some essential way won’t or can’t change at all.

When Facebook registered for a public offering, Mark Zuckerberg posted a reminder at his workstation: stay focused, keep shipping. When Larry Page took over Google, he halved the number of people reporting to the CEO. Both may as well have said, “Don’t change. Keep it simple.”

I just got the same message from Ilan Lovinsky, a partner at a Gunderson law firm, who shared a car to the airport with me after giving a talk at Redfin. “As you get closer to going public, everyone around you will tell you to be less of a maniac, to muzzle yourself, to delegate everything, to become a figurehead,” he said, getting out of the car. “Don’t do it.”

Then he stuck his head back in the car: “The only thing you’re good at is being a maniac.”

If you run a successful startup, you will certainly have plenty of people trying to civilize you, with conferences, coaches, books, meetings. When venture capitalists invest millions in a company, they also invest millions in you, which you can take as a compliment, though it’s also a terrible commitment.

Investors try to help their CEO for the same reason a house-flipper upgrades the kitchen: to ensure the investment appreciates. And so I’ve had people walk into the room of my personality and take out the sink, the countertops, the cabinets.

It has been enormously helpful. Tim Draper told me the fundamental obligation of an entrepreneur is to be an optimist. Doug Mack said you have to intervene rarely so that when you do everyone takes you seriously.

These have been the good changes to the Kelman kitchen. But no one has ever touched the stove or the oven, the source of heat and fire. Sitting in a house constantly undergoing a crazy, half-done renovation, the problem I think the most about is figuring out which parts of myself have to go and which have to stay. And the hardest part of the renovation for many is the part that has to stay.

It’s hard to not-change because your day starts to fill with baloney that has nothing to do with products and customers. Jeff Bezos supposedly has his assistant review his calendar to ensure 20 hours every week are focused on what will deliver the next billion dollars in Amazon revenue.

And it’s hard to not-change because the law of conformity is like the law of gravity, pushing harder the bigger you get. Whatever makes a company different, whatever sticks out, is celebrated as a symbol even as the consultants, the pragmatists and the stuffed-suits wear the whole company down to an almost featureless, perfect sphere.  The new hires at Amazon no longer build their own desks. The coders at Google don’t always work in C. The band in “Almost Famous” gives up their beloved bus for a private plane.

And it’s hard to not-change because you can so easily become a different person three or five years from founding a company. MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe started dating Paris Hilton; how would the history of social networking be different if Paris had zapped onto Mark Zuckerberg instead? A friend of mine who started one of the most influential startups in technology moved to a northern town on a tiny island where he now actually owns a goat.

How long you can last probably depends on whether your startup is a means to an end or an end in itself. And lasting has become increasingly important. Companies won’t go public in a flash like in 1999, or drop like flies like in 2002. For all the talk about how lean a startup can be in 2012, series B and C rounds are still hefty. Good companies can raise capital quickly, but success takes years.

You can beat the odds, though the world is filled with people eager to convince you otherwise. The skeptics like nothing better than telling you that you’ll fall out of love once you get married, that you’ll never see a restaurant again once you have kids, that you can’t play basketball after 30. These are the same people who ate gas-station hamburgers for breakfast in their 20s.

The truth is that some things get worse over time, some get better, and the most important things stay exactly the same. I meet founders and CEOs every month who tell me they’re flummoxed, angry, frustrated, dismayed, discouraged. It doesn’t faze me. But when they tell me they’re tired — really, really tired — I think it’s time for them to stop.

I tell them that most startups don’t run out of money or ideas; their leaders just run out of gas. I tell them Haile Gebrselassie set a world-record  in the marathon by running almost perfectly even splits: the first half was actually 5 seconds slower than the second. Whales swim across featureless oceans in dead-straight lines, holding a course better than a computer-navigated super-tanker.

These qualities are innate and mysterious. No one learns to focus on the customer and the product, to think for yourself, to bite the ass off a bear every day you come to work. But it turns out you can unlearn these traits, as you get corporate, go soft, as you’re surrounded by people whispering that you have to change now that the company you’re leading has 15 people, 50 people, or 500.

Change everything, but not that.

Discussion

  • JanelleS

    I'm so glad the “bite the ass off a bear” quote has returned. 
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v

    • http://blog.redfin.com/ GlennKelman

      I can always count on you for a thoughtful, measured response Janelle (the video made me laugh, and I can't wait to show it to my kids, who love but occasionally fear bears).

  • Marcella Branniff

    If Glenn ever got really really tired, or lost his appetite for all things ursine, or worse, just decided to tuck in his napkin and go the knife and fork route for propriety's sake because they somehow wore him down, I'd be stunned.  And certainly cheering on RF from the sidelines would become decidedly less fun.  But no way.  I'm still afraid for the bears.

    • http://blog.redfin.com/ GlennKelman

      Ursine? Marcella, where do you come up with these words?

  • http://alexlod.com Alex Loddengaard

    Dude. Most inspiring post I've read in an incredibly long time. Thanks, Glenn :)