Overheard on the Subway – Good Start Up Advice

by: Mike Alwill
commentary / formatting by: Doc Harvard

Doc Harvard: It’s not often in the start up world that you get clean, straight forward and non-snake oil advice but I believe that Mike Alwill from Google has hit on something solid here. Normally I have a picture with my blogs but for this one I will forgo it to bring more focus on what is being said.

Take it away Mike –

What We Hear When We Listen

I have a tendency to overhear other people’s conversations without even trying. While at a bar, walking down the street or riding home on the subway, the words just find their way to me and all of a sudden I’m an audience member to someone else’s discussion.

Last night on my ride home I overheard three guys (a white dude, a black dude and an asian dude) discussing hiring strategy for startups. From their speech and clothing, I could tell they: A) had been drinking and B) were business students at NYU (they specifically mentioned the school several times).

The white dude also seemed to have his own startup (of 10 people) and was imparting his past experiences on the other two guys. Some of the topics included:

  1. Joint-hosting a party of several startups that required each attendee to bring two people who were not in a startup but who would be good for one
  2. The need to drink with a candidate to get their honest stance on particular issues
  3. Making sure you find out that a candidate would “go to happy hour with you at 3pm on a Tuesday but stay at work until midnight on Wednesday”
  4. Difficulty during salary negotiations such as “offering someone $33k but not knowing how to react if they ask for more OR the worry that if they do accept, maybe you could’ve offered them even less”
  5. How startups don’t make formal offers but instead are likely to make an offer while out drinking with a friend or candidate

The general theme seemed to be about assessing candidates and making sure you figure out how to get at their inner selves so you know if you’re getting someone of quality which from what I could infer seemed to be someone who drinks, doesn’t take a high salary and follows whatever work schedule you want them to.

Not once did these guys mention selling or proving themselves to the candidate as a justification for why a candidate would want to devote themselves to their startups.

This is why I can’t stand the majority of entrepreneurs: they’re believe the world revolves around themselves and their ideas, and that those working for them need to prove their value when in reality the entrepreneur stands to gain the most from all the blood, sweat and tears of their employees.

A few months ago while in SF, I was relaxing at my hotel bar just reading a book and having a glass of wine. Next to me was a man and woman who didn’t seem to have known each other before their bar chat. The woman seemed somewhat uncomfortable and the man was very chatty, pushing his entrepreneurial ideas pretty hard. Eventually she left and this dude interrupted my reading to start chatting with me.

I forget the details of his grand works but it was tangentially related to what I do so I spent the conversation parrying and riposting his ideas, pointing out anything I thought was weak or glossed over (note: I also sidestepped mentioning my own employer, preferring to present myself as an analyst at some random tech company).

This guy’s main defense was some BS handwaving followed by a slew of buzzwords without a convincing plan or even an acknowledgment of the possibility of a problem. It was as if he was saying: “I know the lingo so there’s nothing to worry about.”

This is another example of someone who simply wanted to talk about themselves and their ideas rather than engage in a potentially destabilizing discussion, as evidenced by the fact that he interrupted me while I was clearly engaged in something else (and something much more worthwhile, at that).

If you’re an entrepreneur (or you wish to be someday) and you’re reading this, some advice:

  1. It’s your responsibility to convince me why I should care about your idea or company and why it’s worth my time
  2. Conversely, don’t approach me unsolicited unless I’ve had the bad judgment to go an event where the price of admission is my very freedom from such unsolicited attention
  3. Listen to yourself sometime. Literally. Record yourself and go figure out whether or not you sound pompous, self-righteous, aloofly optimistic or simply like a tremendous d-bag
  4. Diversify the company (people) you keep. If you only have brohemian b-school or “imma change the world!” startup friends, odds are you in live in some ludicrous bubble
  5. Watch what you say in public places. There are always ears listening, whether they want to or not and while you may think you’re letting loose some intoxicated jumble of thoughts, someone else is evaluating you that very moment

Doc Harvard: I mainly brought this over from Google+ because it’s some good advice for start ups; but, I’d like for everyone else reading this to dig into these words and see how they can apply to other things in business / life. I can see a few, can you?


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