People, Products, Profit – In That Order

One of my favorite books of all time is from the man, the myth, and the legend, Ben Horowitz and his hard-hitting “startup-building bible,” The Hard Thing About Hard Things.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this book since I bought it back in 2014! I keep it very, very close.

In fact, I use it so heavily as a sounding board for leadership, management, and organizational decisions that it’s one of the few books that I actually carry with me wherever I go:

I’m a fan of physical books, but, I carry a select few via iBooks.

Most (if not all) of the chapters resonate deeply and I’m eternally grateful that Ben has shared his thoughts and opinions so clearly and so openly, without hubris and certainly without a coat of sweetener; it’s the cold, hard truth, no pulled-punches of how difficult it can be to build a business from scratch – I love it.

Chapter 5 is about people and how you must prioritize people over the product over the profits (People > Products > Profits), in that order.

This is a bit counter-intuitive, especially in Silicon Valley where pretty much everything is about that elusive and mysterious creature called PMF (Product-Market Fit); most entrepreneurs (and venture capitalists) are willing to sacrifice pretty much anything and everything on the altar of PMF!

What Ben posits is something very different:

My old boss Jim Barksdale was fond of saying, “We take care of the people, the products, and the profits – in that order.” It’s a simple saying, but it’s deep.

Taking care of the people” is the most difficult of the three by far and if you don’t do it, the other two won’t matter.

Taking care of the people means that your company is a good place to work. Most workplaces are far from good. … If your company is a good place to work, you too may live long enough to find your glory.

via Ben Horowitz, The Hard Thing about Hard things

I couldn’t agree more.

But here’s the honest truth (and I’m a little ashamed to admit this publicly): I have always believed in this prioritization (people > everything) and but I haven’t always put it into practice (a lot harder than it looks).

Even in my previous (venture-backed) companies I honestly just gave this more lip-service than anything else! Instead, I spent the vast majority of my time focusing on the reverse: Profits first, the product (features) that would drive profits higher month-over-month, and then the people that were trading their time for profits.

Of course this doesn’t mean that I didn’t respect and value the folks that I got to work with! It just means that I obsessed more about how to maximize revenue and spent less time obsessing over how I could build a “good place to work,” as Ben has helped clarify.

And some of those projects failed to scale into vision that I had hoped they could be – perhaps it’s simply because I didn’t prioritize rightly, perhaps I forgot that if you don’t take care of your people then the other two really don’t matter at all! You won’t build great products and you won’t have any profit built in the context of an enduring, impactful, and meaningful company.

So much wisdom over so many years.

I can be a slow learner at times but this chapter is starting to really make sense to me and I’m really proud to share with you all that the founders of this project and business have always considered the people more than anything else.

In fact, it’s one of the reasons I wanted to build another company! I wanted to build a company culture that I was proud of and that gave me the opportunity to put into practice a lot of the cultural elements, artifacts, and ceremonies that I’ve always wanted to try!

Things like offering our full-time team members unique benefits and budgets for Leadership Development (e.g. Executive Coaching) so that they can grow and develop as people within this company.

Another example is the fact that we’ve intentionally designed our organization to be distributed-first:

It’s not all sunshine and roses, but, it is better.

And another example is one that I’m exceedingly proud of is the fact that I’ve been able to hire core team members that are not only incredibly talented and hard-working, but have even more importantly known me for a long time, which means that the level of mutual trust and understanding (earned over years of empirical data!) that is a real competitive advantage!

Oh, and I can’t forget one of the things that I have always wanted to have: A mascot!

Again and again and again this team has executed against this value of choosing people, first, above everything else.

This naturally extends directly to our customers and our amazing community who have already given us so much that it’s impossible to show our gratitude fully nor perfectly!

The hard thing about hard things, though, is that they are hard to actually put into practice, especially in environments like #fintech and #defi that are, *gasp*, all about money! Financial instrumentation and wealth-building protocols and programmable currency! Profits > everything, right? We can (and must) do better.

I’m biased, but, I honestly believe that the team that I get to work with and the community that we’ve earned the right to serve is THE squad to do it (am I being culturally accurate and relevant with that word?)! I believe that we can build not just a good place to work, but an exceptional one; maybe even great.

Putting people before products and profits is the only path forward toward that greatness – we’re already on our way.