Email isn’t so bad

I quite like email. I say that because I’ve seen lots of things around recently saying that email is broken and needs reinvention. Of course it’s not perfect but with a bit of thought and help from a few other tools, it’s still the best of an imperfect bunch.

I use Mac Mail on two computers (one desktop, one laptop) and on my iPhone. I do have it on my iPad but very rarely use that for mail (or work for that matter). Display wise I’ve minimised everything I can so that as much of the real estate as possible is just the message and key commands. This is also my main reason for not using the web client for Gmail, I don’t want any distractions in my mail. I also have all my mail accounts (I use three) arrive into the same client.

My underlying email accounts are all Google Apps mail accounts using IMAP to sync which can mean that it’s a bit slow to crank up but also means it’s all backed up on a Google server somewhere and I get Google junk mail filtering which is pretty damn good these days. The only exception is mail about used cars which I get because somebody keeps selling my email address instead of that of my namesake in New Jersey.

One thing that made email much more bearable for me was unsubscribing from pretty much all newsletters or mailing lists. If I receive a message that has an unsubscribe link at the bottom, my default is to click it. I’ve switched my ‘finding out about stuff’ to Google Reader which I check once a day. I’ve turned off all Facebook email notifications except those for messages. It’s the same for Twitter and LinkedIn.

My aim is basically to keep my inboxes as empty as I can while only spending a limited amount of time ‘dealing’ with email. I try not to check email until 10am, which is usually when I deal with most of it. If I have an early meeting I probably will check it before I start the journey as people do quite often tell you they’re going to be late via email I’ve found. I’ve also found that sending short emails is a good way to get other people to do the same. Three sentences is often all you need in order to be polite, respond to a question and ask one back if needs be.

As soon as I’ve dealt with an email, I archive it. I don’t bother with tags or folders or anything. Search on Mac Mail is pretty good — I can’t think of an example when I couldn’t find what I was looking for by searching for the person’s name or a keyword. If something needs real work then I add that task to my todo list. It’s the same with most emails that I write pro-actively — they usually start on my todo list and then get ticked off when they’re sent. On average I get about 50 messages a day and I send about 25 messages a day so I know I’m not an extreme case.  It means that usually I reply to email with 24 hours.

I guess my non-hatred of email comes with one other caveat:Â I don’t work in a large organisation and so don’t have the mass of email that mirrors bureaucracy I’ve seen some people have to deal with.

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The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

For the first Startup Book Club we read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. The team is often described as the most important aspect of founding a startup but it’s incredibly difficult to assess other than looking at the experience of the individuals. The Five Dysfunctions goes beyond that though and is one of the most useful things I’ve read on what to look for in the way a team works together. More impressively it also has some good suggestions about what to do about it if it’s not working.

The book is written from the point fo view of Kathryn — a fictional turnaround CEO of a Silicon Valley startup with a hundred or so employees. The team in question is the executive board and after watching the way they work together for two weeks, Kathryn takes them out of their office environment and starts to confront them about their dysfunctions by explaining a model she draws on a whiteboard.

  • The base of the pyramid is absence of trust. Do they know anything about each other and feel comfortable sharing with each other?
  • The next level up is fear of conflict. This is usually the most obvious sign of dysfunction in early stage startups for me although I think I did used to misread it. If a team can’t have disagreements and work through them, they’re often holding back.
  • Next comes lack of commitment — this isn’t the same as commitment to the cause, it’s about commitment to decisions. The easy way to spot it is whether the team having the same debates over and over again.
  • Avoidance of accountability — how do they deal with failure.
  • Inattention to results — do they know what they’re trying to achieve and all

At BGV, because we’re working at such an early stage, it’s not really possible to know whether a team has those dysfunctions at the time we select them. We get some signs though and actually most of the interview is about assessing the team (we make our judgement about the idea from applications).

Once we’ve selected teams and are trying to help them develop, the thing we focus on is honesty, which sounds simple but really isn’t. Getting any group of people to be honest with one another takes time and effort. We’re constantly trying to get the startups to share what they’ve learned — whether it’s good or bad — and also we ask them at least twice a week what they need help with, which is a good way of checking how honest they’re being with themselves. Having spent a bit of time with them now I can safely say they’re on the right track.

The book we’ve chosen for the next Startup Book Club is very different but no less valuable to startup life — it’s Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. You can sign up to come along here.
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What Money Can’t Buy

I first came across Michael Sandel when I was editing the Better Humans? collection for Demos. I’d been immersed in the world of singularity thinkers and was feeling slightly queasy about some of their philosophy when I found his piece for the Atlantic called The Case Against Perfection. By the end of the process of editing the book, I realised that amidst the chaos of other opinions, Sandel’s was the one that made most sense to me. I’ve read pretty much everything he’s written since.

His new book ‘What Money Can’t Buy’ turns to the finance sector and is a really good read. There’s much in there that we all now know (subprime mortgages and  liborgate like manipulation) but the story I didn’t know about is the swaps and trades in ‘death bonds’ (companies taking out life insurance on their employees without their knowledge) which is perhaps the most shocking section of the book.

Sandel’s argument is pretty straightforward — if you let people pursue profit relentlessly without fetter then the public realm will be damaged, so you need laws and regulation. The thing that struck me was that we’re actually pretty good at writing laws but regulation is markedly less mature as a social system. I got a glimpse into the way the FSA worked a few years ago and was a bit shocked at how few tools and resources they had at their disposal.

The other big question raised in the book is should you be able to exploit people because of their financial vulnerability (cough, Wonga)? Probably not. Just because people want something, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. However it’s often a failure of other systems (in the case of Wonga I’d say the retail banks) that creates the opportunity. But should you ban those services? I’d say probably not because it will just drive the market underground or even possibly offshore.

There’s not much in the book about the role of technology in finance but it’s an area that fascinates me. As algorithms increasingly determine what we buy or don’t or how public markets work, we need to think about their ethical role in the way money flows. Tom Standage’s excellent piece for the Economist on robot ethics raises many of the right questions. He takes the more dramatic image of how drones decide targets, but the questions in finance are very similar if more abstract. A single calculation can alter the financial situation of hundreds of thousands of people and increasingly those calculations are made by machines rather than humans.

I think we do need far better regulation of the finance world and if that means it ends up being smaller and slower, so be it. Finance shouldn’t pretend that it’s morally neutral — it should be a tool to make the world a better place.



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