The Dilemma of Fake Work

I read a fascinating piece by Sam Altman, President of Y Combinator, in which he talks to the Post-YC slump. The premise of the article revolves around two very important, yet simple, points: fake work and momentum. Specifically, it’s affects and importance on the companies once they leave the YC cycle.

Quick Aside (over-simplified description of what they do): 

If you’re not familiar with YC, it’s a tech start-up incubator out of San Francisco. They focus specifically on providing seed funding to startups; seed funding being the earliest stage of fund-raising an organization can do. They are unique in their configuration, as they have 3 month cycles in which they bring every startup they invest in to work locally with their team and help build momentum for their respective ideas / projects / companies.

My Biggest Fear

The other day while talking to a friend, I was asked a very simple question – “Tony, so when are you planning to sell?” It was in response to a discussion about the various initiatives we have going on, across the entire business. At first, I was a bit taken back, as I was unclear why that’d be the obvious, perceived direction. Not that it was bad or good, that was besides the point, but to think that was the only obvious direction.

I went on to explain, that the decision and actions we take actually have very little to do with our personal desires. Sell, don’t sell, it was / is all insignificant in my mind. At a head count of 75 employees, in over 22 different countries, operating 24 /7 / 365, the company is far from the project it started as in 2010, from the life-style business it was in 2012 and barely fit the categorization of a tech-startup anymore. This is a real business, one with real impacts and engine of it’s own and my sole responsibility is to continue to fuel the fire, slowing on turns and adjusting speeds on uphill and downhills runs as to not let it go flying off the rails with cargo in tow.

The company has gotten to a point, in terms of size, influence, impact, in which it has little to do with my or my partners desires. We’ve built a solid enough foundation that either of us could be replaced and the business would likely continue to function.

Fake Work

I fear however what this does to a company. Specifically, I fear exactly what Sam speaks of – Fake Work. Not just for myself, but for the company.

In general, startups get distracted by fake work.  Fake work is both easier and more fun than real work for many founders.

Sam Altman

I. Implications to Self

I am perhaps too far to the extreme in my involvement in matters of business, sales and marketing – to the point that I have heard many of my people throw out terms like “micromanagement” or “chaotic” or “special” but that’s ok, I don’t mind. It’s actually how I ensure I maintain a pulse, a pulse in which is not defined by 100 foot reviews of progress, but one defined by front-line experiences. I think the higher you get in your organization, the easier it is to allow fake work to creep into your day to day operations.

I could easily justify my day by going to meetings, promoting the brand, traveling to meet with important people that think highly of themselves and use fancy words, preparing pitch decks that our outdated the minute you distribute it, socializing our progress with others and helping people feel our awesomeness. The reality however is that it does little for the business operations or success. You quickly become a puppet, a figure head and outside of title, you’re really building and running nothing other than the daily / weekly / monthly reports you get.

The problem I see however is how intoxicating the experience can be. It’s easy to think to yourself, “This is awesome!! I really deserve this!!” You wouldn’t be wrong, how many others have achieved the same success? I caution you however, if you do get to this point, be weary of this euphoria; there is no bigger mistake any of us can make than when we start believing our own awesomeness.  I see this happen time and time again, across all domains, and all levels of success.

II. Implications to Company

The challenge of fake-work is one that extend beyond self, it extends to your organization and you have to build it into your culture. One in which you do not define, rather one you embody and set the expectations for through positive-peer-pressure.

When you’re relatively flat, everything seems clear. Yet at some point, you start adding a vertical dimension to your team. With this expansion you quickly start introducing opportunities for fake-work to be introduced, or work that has little to no impact – positive or negative to the company. It’s just work for the sake of work.

We have to instill a culture of purpose, one in which each person is working towards something that has some immediate value. When you engage with the team, they must share such an overwhelming level of importance for what they are doing, whether real or not, they must believe it. They must believe that what they are doing is so critical, so imperative, to the success of the business that it hurts, it burns them to the soul not to get it achieved.

Pushing Through Fake-Work

Regardless of size, I believe fake-work has a way of finding you. I myself have fallen victim to it on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, I don’t believe there to be any single solution to the problem outside of constant self-awareness, over emphasis on accountability and self-policing.

Stay focused on building a product your users love …

Sam Altman

We have to be asking ourselves, regardless of role, “What and how is what I am doing going to positively or negatively affect the company?” Every group, every individual should be put in place to have some affect on the company. Whether it’s HR, or engineering, each is put in place to live in harmony with one another, not in the place of the other.

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