Operational Lessons From My Mom

garbage apologies

In honor of Mother’s Day (that’s when I started to write this, so who knows when I’ll finish it or when you’ll read it), I’ve been thinking about some of the things she taught me, both expressly and by example. In my household, my Mom was most directly responsible for teaching me how to deal with my many screw-ups. (No knock on my Dad, here — he was first responder to a couple of doozies, like getting thrown out of Little League, but my Mom has him beat on raw volume.)

For some background, my Mom got stuck (or chose) to take on this particular aspect of child-rearing for a couple reasons. While both my parents worked full-time, my Mom’s hours resulted in more direct face-time with her kids. Plus, as a teacher, she had a better grasp than my Dad did of the problems that faced my generation, and a larger sample size to compare it to. For instance, it was very difficult to convince my Mom that I had a unique, acute attention deficit disorder when she dealt with 30 other rugrats all day who were sometimes even worse. My Mom’s career also made her particularly… err… “invested” in my behavior at school; if you really did have a bad teacher, circumstance, etc., there was no stronger ally to go into battle with than my Mom. But God help you if you weren’t honest about the situation, or were contributing to the problem yourself. I get chills just thinking about parent-teacher conferences to this day.

Anyways, the point is that my Mom was on the front-line of my countless mistakes, so her reaction, advice, and thoughts on them were probably more important to me than anyone’s, even if I vehemently disagreed with them at the time. And one thing she had absolutely no tolerance for were weak, forced apologies. “Sorry doesn’t do anything,” she’d say. “If you’re sorry, do something to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

pivots as apologies

I could write a whole piece about the different flavors of cynicism, but for the sake of this particular argument, you just have to know that I’ve never thought of cynicism as a universally negative thing, probably because I was raised by a couple of New England yankees with limited tolerance for bullshit or self-serving rationalization, and we live in a world that seems increasingly full of those two things. I’ve read lots of historical takes about how Massachusetts and the Route 128 belt missed out on becoming Silicon Valley for a bunch of policy/regulatory/infrastructure reasons, but the Valley as we know it simply couldn’t exist in New England because it’s a creative engine of amazing economic potential powered by — let’s face it — a nuclear reactor of horseshit and nonsense. Even real companies out there like Facebook and Google are constantly hand-waving away limits to their business models with massive, ambitious, absurd attempts to enter new spaces and pretending they have any idea what they’re doing. That kind of thing just doesn’t fly in the original thirteen colonies… unless you’re related to someone. We have our own problems with that.

In venture companies, the closest thing to a common childhood apology is the pivot. This is where you stop doing something that isn’t working and try something different with the same pile of money you originally raised by saying, very confidently, that the first thing was totally going to work and make everyone rich. There are two basic ways to couch this kind of pretty obviously bad news.

  • Pivot as learning experience — “Hey investors, I know we were going to build the ultimate snack delivery company, but it turns out that the logistics of delivering snacks are a lot more complicated and expensive than we thought. BUT, in building out our amazing snack library, and serving our customer base, we’ve learned that we could create the same kind of value for our customers at a fraction of the cost by re-inventing the vending machine experience. So that’s what we’re going to do. We got rid of our delivery function and are building out a vending machine team.”
  • Pivot as a rationalization — “Hey investors, just want to let you know that we have COMPLETED OUR MISSION to disrupt the snacking experience, and are moving on to an even bigger challenge; the vending machine space. As the number one snack delivery provider, and best-capitalized vendor in the industry, we’re uniquely equipped to take the next step in achieving our vision of making the right snack available to everyone on the planet at the exact moment they need it.”

One of my biggest problems with VCs, in my limited experience interacting/dealing with/being affected by them is that in general they’re much harder on that first response than I think they should be, and much, much, MUCH more lenient on the second one. The result is that approach #2 is a lot more common than you think, even when it’s obviously ridiculous, and well-capitalized startups end-up being even more vulnerable to delusional thinking than large, established companies when it should really be the other way around.

the “make sure it doesn’t happen again” part

The costs of mistakes and incorrect operational decisions are pretty obvious — it’s the immediate thing you have to deal with when you screw up. But if you’re in any kind of growth phase (as a company or, say, a kid), the opportunity cost of hand-waving away mistakes as either GLORIOUS VICTORIES or random one-off outliers (“no one could have foreseen the breach of the levees”) is usually even greater than the cost of your screw-up.

I’m obviously not proposing ripping up every process the minute it doesn’t work — but just about everything can be iterated on, tweaked, or re-examined as situations, markets, and conditions develop. That’s simply how things get better, and how kids, entrepreneurs, and teams learn and improve, no matter how smart you are coming out of the gate. I think the best organizations operate like this whether they admit it or not, but the way this kind of thing is messaged (and encouraged by boards and management) matters, especially in growth environments.

So with all that said, I think I’ll put my Mom on the board if I ever end up running a company. Good luck trying to spin that disastrous Q3 product rollout to her as a validation of your strategy.