Perspective, Pontification and Propoganda about Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital, brought to you by David Hornik of August Capital.

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hamad alhomaizi

david - that was a very poignant essay and i second you all the way. one cannot appreciate the trials of business without going through organizations with ill-fitting teams. they're most likely the ones where no conscious effort is made to build bridges or add a sense of camraderie. thank you.

Michael Turner

It's long been understood that undergoing danger and physical rigors as a group has salutary effects on group cohesion. People call it "team-building", but I think this is a misnomer. What's really going on is building something else: intimacy. That's an embarassing word, isn't it? But it's a useful ingredient for facilitating teams. What you're doing is getting strangers to be friends, in short order.

The corporation is a terribly artificial social institution, when you think about it. It's not a family, it's not a village, it's not a tribe. You take people from very widely varying backgrounds, selected primarily for their skills and for having some kind of track record, and you hope for the best. A million years of human evolution have done very little to prepare us for being thrown together on such an arbitrary basis, one that is totally unrelated to kinship. College provides some preparation for this kind of experience, but ... look at the game, it's completely different. You throw a bunch of strangers together and ask them to compete, not cooperate. Certain friendships emerge as some students cooperate in small clusters (the study group); others emerge as students take refuge from the competition, finding camaraderie in extracurricular activities.

Computers have made the office a physically more dangerous place, but the risks people take at the keyboard are purely individual risks, and the resulting degradation of health is a gradual process. It's a private and chronic hell, not a shared purgatory. We are what the Stone Age made us, as a species. Small wonder, then, that group cohesion is better fostered by taking dramatic physical risks together, and making each other responsible for each other's safety from real and immmediate dangers.

There is no reward without risk. Some of my best friends are people I went rock climbing with. But people die out there, sometimes. Spelunking is even more dangerous. Can corporate America really reasonably ask of their employees that they go out and take real risks in the name of goals that seem to mostly benefit investors?

Splunk sounds like a great team, but it's probably a great team of software engineers who were originally a great team of cavers, who got sick of their respective jobs, and formed their own company. Can this be routinized? Can it be turned into a formula for success? I don't think so.

Michael Baum

Actually Splunk was started by a team of entrepreneurs who have started four other companies together. We are entrepreneurs and software engineers first. Spelunking caves is only a recent endevor, although one we all fell in love with quickly. What we have "routinized" to use your word, is the practice of identifying frustrating problems and building solutions to solve those problems with interesting new approaches. I don't know if this is something that can be reduced down to a precise formula, but there certainly are people who have studied the act of creating disruptive new technologies and the market dynamics associated with it. For more on this check out Clayton Christensen's talk at the Open Source Business Conference 2004.

Happy Splunking...

Michael Turner

Shame on me for making assumptions. I think my basic points stand, however: you're friends, through thick and thin. That thick and thin may have started with doing startups together, and taking physical risks together happened to follow naturally for you. Does it really matter in what order it happens? It's the personal affinities (please don't call it "social capital") that gave you traction either way.

I was not speaking of "routinization" of the process creating "disruptive new technologies and market dynamics". The benefits of going on an adventure together are primarily in fostering group cohesion quickly. However, no ropes course (nor shared cooking lessons, for that matter) will transform people who are not original or perceptive enough for disruptive technology and the market dynamics thereof into people who are.

T-shirts can't do this either. If I were running a company where I suspected some latent, unexpressed reserve of talent and initiative, I might perform a little experiment: issue a memo banning company t-shirts as a sterile exercise in faux solidarity, and see what happens. If, within a week, some 20% or more of employees were wearing a bootleg t-shirt with some brilliant smart-ass rejoinder on it, I'd know I'd struck gold. (And would start wearing the t-shirt myself, with a clown hat, for a week, as the beginnings of building bridges to the rebels.) If they all sullenly knuckled under, I'd know there wasn't much ore to be mined.

Robert Hoffer

When Team Building Goes Bad

A few years ago at one of my companies my co-founder, purely by hapenstance, stumbled upon a martial arts dojo that was going out of business; he noticed that the sub-lease provision on the place was highly favorable at a time in Silicon Valley when rents were peaking -- making the dojo sub-lease a good deal. The dojo sensei came along with the deal.

This was not any sensei mind you, this was a sensei master in the art of kempo - an ancient sword-fighting technique. So my colleague struck a deal with the kempo-sensei to teach sword fighting once a day to all of the engineers in our fledgling firm's engineering office.

Our firm had two offices, an East Coast sales and marketing facility and a West Coast engineering facility. Once a day, the entire West Coast team took an hour after lunch to learn kempo. Team building.

Unfortunately, neither the senior manager, our engineering VP or our senior product manager felt inclined to engage in sword-play; so they opted out. When the swords started flying - they sat by their posts toiling away on the day's projects as required by the job all the while building up resentment at the intrusion on their staff's valuable work-day.

Far from fostering a group spirit this seemingly harmless team building attempt had the opposite effect; it alienated people who either felt uncomfortable with the approach or who by virtue of being 3,000 miles away were not able to participate.

This type of artificial management imposed team building can be a serious problem. As I read David's blog I imagined my own horrific spelunking experience ... way back in summer camp when I was 10 years old. Deep in a cave in the Poconos the leader of the team suggested that I explore a tunnel and up I went into a cold, cramped dark hole. I was terrified of what I might find. When I wiggled my way back down out of the hole into the main cavern none of my comrades were there; having cleverly slipped into an adjacent cavern. I was alone and terrified. I started to cry. I thought I had come down the wrong way and gotten lost in a cave. When the joke was sprung - I being the brunt of it - felt alienated. And that alienated feeling stayed with me for the rest of that summer. I felt apart from my bunk-mates because of it. Alone. I've not been spelunking since.

I imagine this is the feeling that many people have when they are forced to do 'dangerous' things with a team. Rather than cohere everyone you run the risk of alienating members of your team.

A word of caution on team building - make sure everyone is really on board before you launch into one of these seemingly harmless episodes or you may find yourself fostering secretly negative feelings amongst your team members. Real team spirit cannot be forced.

:-)

ned

Didn't take the spelunking seriously? Then someone had to take it seriously for you. People who behave this way in risky, unforgiving environments are called assholes. Their actions often lead to unneccesary tragedy.

Somehow, these jerks often survive while those whom they hire to pay attention for them die from cascading and avoidable errors caused by the smug indifference of their inexperienced clients.

Suppose someone with your attitude packed your parachute or your ropes? How would that be?

Whippet

What silliness. T-shirts, spelunking and friggin' Halloween parties. Christ, does this "VC" know anything at all about the real world of business building???

Company cultures don't get built in California caves or skydiving or go-karting, or whatever other silly things West Coast VCs think are "cool". They get built every day, 8-6, through hard work and graft and interaction. That may not be funky Red Herring Silicon Valley VC bubble stuff, but it is the real world.

It amazes me how Ventureblog has so little of interest or depth to write about. T-shirts and spelunking!! I guess I expected more thinking and more originality from a VC blog. (Come to think of it, ALL the VC blogs are Dullsville...)

Sramana Mitra

David - I just wrote an article called "In Here" not "Out There" which you and your readers may enjoy. Sramana

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