Hello, I’m Michael Sliwinski, founder of Nozbe - to-do app for business owners and their teams. I write essays, books, work on projects and I podcast for you using #iPadOnly in #NoOffice as I believe that work is not a place you go to, it’s a thing you do. More…

It's All About Passion » Chapter 6 - Passion 5: Growth

Chapter 6 - Passion 5: Growth

You will develop a passion for growing and growth!

Passion 5: Growth

“It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”

  • George Eliot

Growing for the sake of growing

Many startups which become funded by the VCs have too much money in their bank account and feel the urge to spend it quickly… so they start growing for the sake of growing. They just feel they need to grow their team and company really quickly although they have no clue how to do it. They are passionate about spending money on growth, not on the growth itself.

When your startup takes off, you grow with it

The first year of running Nozbe I was a one-man-shop. Next year I hired first two people - a programmer and a customer support person. And we stayed like this for two more years. Then, I finally grew up and realized we needed to develop our team and improve the processes in our company. I know, I was slow, but I had to grow to become a CEO of a company and this move took me a little time. Today we’re a team of 15 people and I’m hoping to double it this year. Yes, we are definitely growing.

But passion for growth doesn’t end by just hiring more people. It combines all the other passions by growing your solution into a better and a more complete one, by growing your product into a mature and near-perfect one and by growing your team not only in size, but also making sure everyone in the team keeps getting better and grows with you.

It takes a little more time to find this passion but at some point you realize you want to care for growth a lot more. I’m passionate about our growth, our growing user base and our growing team. It’s amazing to see things getting better and people getting better. It’s a very rewarding passion to find.

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“Remind your Team about your Mission and why it matters. Say it over email. Say it in meetings. Say it all the time. Say it with meaning and passion. Your team needs to be reminded that what they’re doing matters and that you’re insanely passionate about it. They’re not as invested in it as you are and you need to lead by example. If you’re not insanely passionate about your mission, maybe it’s time to kill your startup.”

  • Ryan Carson, co-founder of Treehouse

Growing by embracing the challenges

Running a startup business is not a walk in the park. Things don’t always go the way you planned… and what’s worse, sometimes the technology evolves in totally different directions from the ones you assumed. You may invest lots of time, energy and money in developing a Flash-based tool for mobile devices and then all of the sudden Mr Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. decides this technology is “old-school” and none of their i-Devices (iPhones, iPads, iPods) will support it. You’re out of luck and you need to pivot and change your strategy… or die.

Pivoting is hard and painful… and great for you

Big companies usually fear change and do everything in their power to maintain the status quo. They see change as the enemy and employ all of their resources to bring back the “old way of doing things”. Don’t take this route. Never.

Nozbe was initially built as a web application and with developments of HTML5 and projects like Chrome OS from Google I was confident we should be just improving our web site and not focus on installable apps.

The iOS App store and Mac App store and all the other places of app distribution proved me wrong. We had to adjust our strategy and treat our web-app as a web service with a great API and focus on building installable, “native” apps. Our customers loved the idea but were anxious to wait as we built these apps. It still is a steep learning curve. We learned a lot more about our tool, our users and our mission by building a whole array of apps for all the major platforms: Android, Mac, Windows and of course the iPhone and the iPad.

This year we’re taking this change to a whole new level and we’re launching a Nozbe 2.0 suite of apps which will introduce a “mobile first” strategy in our company. We’ll make sure first that our mobile apps are the best for our customers and we’re “growing” our bigger desktop apps from them. Instead of shrinking the desktop apps to their mobile counterparts, we’re building mobile apps and expanding them to the desktop. It sounds trivial, but believe me, it’s not. It’s a whole different game for us.

Change is your opportunity - embrace it

When the wind of change is blowing - feel it, take it, love it. It’s a stimulus that you needed to maybe alter your way of doing things, put some new systems or processes in place or hire some new people you thought you wouldn’t need.

Just think about the whole entertainment industry: music, movies and publishing. They hated the digital age. They fought it even though they knew it was a losing battle. Now they are left behind and they have to catch up. Don’t be like them and embrace the change to make something new. To work on something much better than you initially wanted.

Your fear of change is a sign. Listen to it.

Seth Godin talking about “the lizard brain” and our internal resistance keeps on saying that the voice of fear inside of us needs to be heard. But in a different way. If the voice says “don’t” you need to translate it to “just do it. it’s going to be great”. I remember that whenever I gave in to the voice of my fear, I always regretted the decision afterwards. Now I know - the fear is a sign and if you’re passionate about your startup idea, you’re going to take it as a challenge worth pursuing.

Grow with others and build partnerships

When you already know that fear is your best indicator to grow and take on challenges, very often you’re still not able to make it on your own. Even if you have a great team behind you. Sometimes you need to search for experience and expertise on the outside.

Better OK now than GOOD two years later

With Nozbe I understood the importance of iPhone support very early on. When iPhone launched in the USA, I built a web-app for the iPhone in a week and it was a great decision. This web-app optimized for this new revolutionary device helped me market my main application and made my early-iPhone-adapter-users very happy.

When Apple announced the iPhone App Store I didn’t understand the importance of it. After all, I never built a native app before so I just failed to comprehend the significance of a great distribution platform. After more than half a year, I finally hired some guys from far East to build me an iPhone app. Again, I didn’t have the expertise nor the resources to build a good iPhone app and it was really bad. I tried to make it better but it simply wouldn’t do.

I partnered with another company that was building iPhone and iPad apps and we managed to strike a deal that they’d offer the app for pay and it would work independently as well as with subscription. Many gurus advised me not to take this deal. I did. We managed to get a decent iPhone app quickly and an iPad app shortly after the iPad launched. This gave us tremendous momentum and my web-application grew by leaps and bounds shortly afterwards.

This experience not only helped me develop the user base of my web app but also taught me a lot about the importance of good partnerships. After this one, I formed a lot more partnerships in many different areas and learned quickly where I should focus on building an internal team and in which cases I should tap into someone else’s experience.

The passion and drive to build a great product and swiftly ship an iPhone and iPad app taught me to decide quickly. I grew a lot from the experience. It was a good decision and it helped my company grow, too. After a few years, when we realized how important the mobile platforms are to our business, we decided to reverse the decision and built our own free mobile apps for our customers. And we did. And now we’re taking it to a whole new level with Nozbe 2.0.

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Be passionate about growing as a leader

You are not born a leader. You become one. To grow your passionate startup you simply need to grow to become a great leader. You need to learn to lead people as it’s the only way for them to do a great job and help you grow your startup business. You can’t make people do great things. They have to achieve all this by following their leader. It’s your job to do that.

You’re here to help. And that’s it.

When you’re leading a company, your job is to help. You’re in a business of helping your team achieve greatness. Every time I talk to anyone from my team, I keep reminding myself to ask the key questions: “How can I help you? How can I make your life at work better? What do you need from me to succeed?” and provide them with everything they need (within a reason of course). Stephen Covey talks a lot about it in the “7 Habits of Most Successful People” when he discussed Empowerment. It’s your habit.

In German language an employee is “Mitarbeiter” - and if you translate it verbatim you’ll have: “With-worker” - which I like to interpret as a person that works WITH you, not FOR you. Treat your people like that. Let them feel they work with you not for you.

Your passion is infectious. Spread the virus.

Passionate people inspire others. If you’re passionate about your startup you have a chance to spread the virus and infect your team with some real passion and purpose. This virus will drive them to be greater than you ever expected them to be. They will follow you, learn from you and want to be like you. They will want to get better and they’ll be equally passionate to grow themselves.

Build Triads because you are not a judge

In the book “Tribal Leadership” the authors talk about building triads - meaning the boss stops being the judge and empowers his team members to solve the problem themselves. In my team I have two very talented developers. Both work really great together but they fight a lot, too. When they struggle over the kind of technology we need to implement in our app, they go to me for a decision. I’m supposed to choose who’s right. I never do.

I ask a simple question: “What’s the objective here?” and they respond that the goal is to build a fast and easy-to-use time-management application that syncs with all the devices our users happen to have. And then I say: “Well guys, you’re both the best guys for the job I know - go and figure out the best of both worlds of the two technologies you suggest. Find me a sweet-spot here. Do some more research and talk more about it. I know you’ll do a great job together”.

A week later they tell me they’ve decided what to do next and they’ve already implemented it… together. Isn’t that great?

Learn new languages, markets and cultures

In August 2010 I saw something totally unexpected happening - lots of users from Japan were signing up for Nozbe and I had no idea how this happened. It was really spooky.

Suddenly there were thousands of new folks using my web application from a country in the Far East, where I didn’t have a Japanese version of Nozbe or even a single person on our staff who could speak this language… and we started getting support questions in Japanese!

Again, when the fear strikes, it’s time to pay attention and listen to it. Guy Kawasaki in one of his presentations about running a startup said that whenever a customer you never expected shows up at your doorstep do one thing: “Take the money”. So I did and decided to learn a little more about Japan and investigate what actually happened and why some bloggers like Zonostyle and Shigatano are writing so much about Nozbe.

Fast forward one year and we already had a book in Japanese about Nozbe published, I visited Japan twice, made lots of friends in the process, started several business partnerships with some really fantastic Japanese companies… and begun learning the language. I even got myself my first Bonsai tree.

When you grow, the surprises never stop

Passion for growth should be an integral part of life. It’s the key to your business venture… and you get surprised all of the time. When you grow, things never cease to amaze you. It still works for me like this.

  1. Surprised by an unlikely partnership

    When I took the decision to form a partnership with an external company to build iPhone and iPad apps and we chose a very strange business model for this, I was surprised it actually worked and how my whole startup took off. Most experts said I was crazy when I did it. The outcome keeps surprising them, too.

  2. Surprised by a new culture and community

    My experience with Japanese users felt like a roller-coaster drive and it was amazing. It surprised me how much I grew as a businessman while falling in love with a country and culture so far from mine and making some really cool friends in the process.

  3. Surprised how your team member’s victories become yours

    The surprises just keep on coming. I’m constantly being surprised by the folks in my team when I see how they work and what they’re achieving and how good they are becoming at their stuff. I love it. They surprise me with their attitude, approach, ideas… everything… and they enjoy seeing their own growth, too.

And finally you become surprised about your growth

When you grow as a leader, when you learn something new, you’ll surprise yourself what you have become. How you’re becoming a better person and others become better around you.

In a short book “10 distinctions between millionaires and middle class” I found a phrase that stuck with me: “Millionaires read books” - and I’m not an avid reader. It’s not that I want to become a millionaire but I want to be a better person and what the book implied that these “Millionaires” are constantly growing by learning. I thought for a while about it an decided to change my habits and found out I wasn’t a reader because I read slowly and never had time for it. I switched to audiobooks and suddenly from reading 2 books in 2009 I went up to around 30 in 2010. These were all the great business-related books I always wanted to read. By “reading” them I became a better leader and better businessman.

You grow, you learn, and you will be surprised how it improves your life and those around you.

When you help people around you grow, you want to grow that circle of influence even more

Out of your passion for growth comes the next one: to help others. In the next chapter I’ll tell you an incredible story that happened to me upon my first visit to Japan. There will be drama, earthquake, tsunami… and lots of passion to deal with all this…