Fighting the good fight

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Wrote this ages ago but literally didn’t have the time to post OR didn’t have an internet connection. Or both. True story.

It’s an oversimplification, sure, but there are the good guys and then there are the bad guys. Even bad companies can have good people working for them. And that part about power corrupting? That too.

In the last week I had a lunch with the CEO of one of my competitors. I quite like the guy, but one of the things he said really quite struck home: he said when you’re fighting, and scrapping, you make stuff happen. Quite true, that.

With adversity comes innovation. But as one of my telecoms mentors put it a few months back, it also sucks to be scratching, and fighting, and clawing, for scraps. That’s not where you want to be, either, obviously. Speaking of that man, the closer we get, the more I learn about his own struggle of personality and ethics vs powers-that-be, and the more I learn, the more I like and respect him. He’s no saint and can be a bit erratic, but he’s a good, caring man at the core. Funny, because he’s got a reputation of being a bit cold, but he’s actually one of the most caring guys you’ll ever meet. The man specifically scheduled a trip to Cape Town to see a staff member of fifteen years who is now in the final stages of his fight against cancer. Not that many business leaders would do that.

Funny also that for an industry with such a reputation of dodginess, some of which well deserved, I have met some of the sweetest, most caring, most ethical people I know. Irony. But I love telecoms. Man, do I love telecoms. Long way from ‘anything between the web server and the device I don’t know I don’t care.’

Too much money and you hit the issues of the dotcom boom (been there, done that, got a wide variety of t-shirts, actually, some of which I still have!), and even the Silicon Valley of today where excess capital has caused wage inflation, talent shortages, job hopping, and companies whose funding requires them to be flipped so quickly that it’s hard to create long-term value.

Silicon Valley used to create companies. Now it creates features. In a way, I guess it’s that American dream combined with that famous American impatience and short attention span.

I had the pleasure on the last weekend of seeing a friend I hadn’t seen in nearly a year: the beautiful, intelligent, and strong personality that is Amy Thom. While hiking in Silvermine she asked me whether or not I thought it was the right decision to leave where I was and come to Skyrove.

Strolling among blooms in Silvermine

Strolling among blooms in Silvermine

It was a complicated answer. The bottom line is yes, I got what I wished for. And then some. I’m orders of magnitude more advanced in a business sense than I was a year ago, and that was the main point. All the other things that come along with it; just like CrossFit, I wouldn’t give them up for the world at this point but holy cow the volume of stress is actually just exhausting.

Yes, I do mean it just like that. The myriad of stresses. Your staff member wanting your attention when you just really want to go to get a glass of water. Some customer calling your mobile because they can. Delays on the vendor side. Events you had planned entire trips around suddenly being cancelled and you then must scramble to fill your schedule. Your board member wanting to do a deep dive on some specific aspect of the business when you have deadlines to meet. Your coaches and physio kindly pointing out that you’re really not doing it right, and are you sure about the choices you’re making? Your brother telling you something you already know, because he clearly presumes you miss the forest for the trees (which you sometimes do).

I love my staff. Even when I’m disciplining them or telling them to up their game I appreciate their response. They’re not perfect, nor am I, but they do try. I love my customers, mostly, even the high maintenance ones are normally reasonable and I can even identify with the little ones who just want a POISP (plain old ISP …. Play on POTS for those industry nerds out there). It’s either a commodity game or an OTT game. It’s not that there is no middle ground, but the industry is still evolving to figure out how to offer something other than a commodity to the long tail. Patience, grasshopper.

Stop & smell the roses. Well, these require a swim. And they aren't roses.

Stop & smell the roses. Well, these require a swim. And they aren’t roses.

I think of Skyrove some days as like a tempest in a teapot. It’s a startup’s startup. Three different lines of business, developing a fourth, and maybe even a fifth depending on how you look at it (and for the record, this is by necessity not by choice, Babson taught me better than that!!), trying to replace tyres on a moving car, and like any group of humans, we over-perform in some areas and under-perform in others. I see many of our weaknesses so clearly, but we also have some strengths that I’d be hard-pressed to replicate.

In words I will never forget, in The Muddy Charles in around February of 2010: “You play the hand you’re dealt.” Indeed.

This experience has taught me a lot about a lot. What things I should have looked at sooner, what I did exactly right, and by golly it’s still a work in progress. Everything is everything, right?

I once read about how some celebs refused to read the press about themselves because it was just depressing and overwhelming. I’m kind of at that level now. It used to bother me what one person or another person would say about me behind my back. It also used to bother me in a way that I would engage in the same sort of thing, like I should somehow be more mature than everyone else. Now? Hey, we all do it. Have done since high school. Always have, always will. Unless we have the pleasure of always having angels in our lives, but that ain’t going to be any time soon. I can be professional when I need to, but I’m also a human and I don’t always bloody well need to.

And also this: there have been one or two times that I can remember where hearing the backchannel gossip really just motivated me more, because normally, there is actually some truth in it and sometimes it’s easier to hear in such a way where you can have the whole ‘emotional ad hominem’ but then calmly and rationally take the learning out anyway.

The order of the day is keeping your head above water and trying to keep your sense of humour while you’re at it. Not explicitly complaining because, as I said, wouldn’t trade it for the world but THIS is exactly why I never wanted to be a CEO. Someday, and soon, I will go away for a weekend or so, no laptop, out of mobile coverage, and just be somewhere that no one who wants or needs anything from me can reach me.

At the end of the day, though, I always keep coming back to this: why am I doing this? At least I know, and am comfortable with the answer (here’s a clue: money has nothing to do with it, and this is why I have no desire to go back to The Valley, other than to be amongst some of the most innovative in the world). Plus, in the next six months or so, we’re going to get to see whether or not my setting up of the dominoes has the intended effect or not.

As an executive perk, I do sometimes get to meet interesting people, and see and do interesting things, including a tour of a part of the telecoms industry that was a complete mystery to me earlier, and attending the Rihanna concert in Cape Town because we were doing some Wi-Fi. Thank heavens I didn’t pay to go, but it was fun to go in the staff entrance and muck about behind the scenes. I also got called princess about six times in the week, starting by whining on Facebook that it was unfair to serve me wine at lunch. Completely ruined my productivity for the rest of the day!

Staff entrance. Deserted by the time I showed up fashionably late!

Staff entrance. Deserted by the time I showed up fashionably late!

It’s not all fun and games, obviously, but nor is it all play and no work! I’ve had a few different people, ranging from a lawyer to a venture capitalist, tell me in the last week that they are not entirely sure how I’ve pulled off some of the things I’ve pulled off. I think … a combination of luck and apparently, I can be quite persuasive when I want to. Or when I need to.

You do what you have to do.

But then … there is this. We must always remember not to forget: ‘What have you done for me lately?’

Great quote from the fascinating Gian Visser about embracing the short end of the stick, because if you have the short end, your customer has the long end. Think about that one for a sec. If your customer, or partner, or whatever, is not responding how you want, put yourself in their shoes for a minute or ten, and think it out from their side.

Maybe, just maybe, your service level isn’t what it should be, or your level of consideration is not right, or a few years back what you offered was valuable but it’s long since outlived its useful lifespan, or it’s actually your turn to do the dishes and there’s some pent up resentment that doesn’t come out because every time you do it just leads to a fight.

And for heaven’s sake, the dishes aren’t a metaphor for anything. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  • “I have the same aversion. It’s an earned thing. Not a right.” – Sam
  • “That workout sounds hard.” “You know how when you train really hard then laugh and you cough?? That.” – Rob & Ellie (Fight Gone Bad)
  • “Always hesitate. That way, they never know.” – Elizabeth
  • “I’ll pretend surprise.” – Sam
  • “Through my practice I’ve seen that you’ve gotten your hands on all sorts of things that you shouldn’t be able to. You must be very convincing!” – Rolf
  • “And btw if I say f*** you, it comes from a place of mutual respect and love. Really does.” – Rob (I told him to do 100 burpees for time)
  • “Supposed to be adults, wow.” – Carla
  • “There is no doubt in my mind that that’s exactly what you will do.” – Rob
  • “It’s like the wild west right now.” – Steve
  • “I said screw you over. Not screw you.” – Ellie (and, for the record, I said WON’T)
  • “I’m sorry. I can be a bit …. Blunt.” [laughter] “Well you were going to find out eventually, it may as well be now!” – Ellie
  • “I don’t disagree with you. But I don’t want to scare them before I’ve even met them!” – Ellie
  • “I’m glad you see that! Because most people don’t see it at all.” – Jon
  • “It’s like a bird’s nest on every lamp post.” – Jon
  • “I asked him how he found out about us, and he just said: ‘You guys are legends.’” – Adam
  • “Stop kidding you are talking about auth API at 10:45pm!!!! Nerd you are!” – Cedric
  • “Men understand this. Women don’t.” – Lance
  • “What should I do?” – Stefan
  • “The father.” “Thanks for clarifying that.” – Werner & Ellie
  • “If you are looking to step up your game, you will need to start thinking ahead.” – Coach JJ
  • “I don’t care. I’m going to do it anyway and it will be my gift.” – Doug
  • “At least he cares.” – Jalal
  • “You can never do well enough but you can always do better.” – Ellie
  • “We are quite careful. But; … we could be more careful.” – Tim
  • “It’s amazing what you can learn when they’re drunk.” – Stefan
  • “‘He looks like his photo.’ Did I really just say that?” – Ellie
  • “You don’t win on Gameday.  You have to ‘win’ every day leading up to it.” – Coach JJ

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