Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Finding the fundamentals. A lesson an old friend taught me about searching for too much advice

There's been some new debate around how to run a business and manage projects, especially caused by new efforts from Joel Spolsky of FogCreek and Jason Fried of 37signals. These two are very successful business owners and effective managers, but have many differences in how they run their businesses.

For example, Joel's given up blogging, but of course Jason thinks it's critical to building an audience. Or their views on VC funding, Joel's working on getting some and Jason's pretty anti-VC. Frequently they have their differences and different teachings.

Made me think of a lesson I learned many years ago from observing a great friend of my father's. His name was Roy Bystrom.

Mr. Bystrom was an awesome inventor. He was dyslexic and largely self taught in everything he did. But he was also awesome at everything he seemed to touch. First of all, he's like a household name in go karting. He had a company that made clutches that many karters would use. Here's some people remembering their karting stories of Mr. Bystrom.

Here's a patent he had on clutches too.

But Mr. Bystrom also fixed microscopes and sold things like thermocouples he'd build and sell to the government. Not only was he this great engineer, but he was an award winning photographer.

Where am I going with this?

Well Mr. Bystrom also had a hobby that consumed him. Golf.

But the thing is, Mr. Bystrom never mastered golf like he did the other things. And his problem was that he constantly overanalyzed how to play golf rather than just playing his own game of golf.

He had every book, every magazine, every gadget. He even built his own.

And he'd practice like a mad man. But whenever he practiced, he tried a new way to swing. A new way to putt. One day he'd be trying to bring the golf club slowly back, one day he'd do it quickly, one day he'd try and start with his weight on this foot, one day he'd do this and that.

He once took a lesson with a golf pro who was my boss at the time, and an awesome golfer himself, O.B. Sanders. When Mr. Bystrom was taking this lesson, he asked "O.B., so I have these two different Golf Digest magazines, and one article says you should start with your weight on your right foot. But this Golf Digest says to start with your weight on the left foot. Which is right?"

O.B.'s advice was: it doesn't matter. What matters is what works for you, what your comfortable with, and what you can learn to do without even thinking about it.

Running a business is a lot like that. So many people read every friggin business book ever written. They go to every blog and question and answer site. They are constantly asking the same question over and over and over again, looking for a secret.

And guess what? People are going to have different opinions on raising money, managing employees, developing code and prototypes, and on and on. And if you read enough of them, you'll find people that you hold in the very highest respects, who are more successful running their business than you think you'll ever be, but who have completely different opinions on being successful.

The lesson though from Mr. Bystrom's experience, is that it just doesn't matter. What feels right to you? Joel and Jason clearly show that you have multiple options on this path. So what feels natural and good to you? You like making paper mockups and having meetings and getting more and more partners in VCs to help you run your business. Than bingo. That's not my way, but if it's what you like doing just go and run it, that way.

Sure, you need advice and education. But you need to figure out what you feel are the fundamentals. All the debate and all the worry about the one correct golden secret formula someone else has to running your project or business is just going to lead you to playing a poor game. You'll be spending more time wavering and changing and working against how you naturally want to work, that you'll never be comfortable, and neither will your employees, or your customers.

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