69: Growing from a Startup to a “Real” Business with Jordan Ambra of Serenity SoftwarePublished March 16, 2021
Run time: 01:14:08
What got you your first customers won't get you the next ones. Jordan Ambra of Serenity Software joins the show to talk about the challenges of going from a startup to a “real” business, transitioning from a people-oriented business to a process-oriented one, and preparing for growth by focusing on fundamentals.
In this episode, you will learn:
- How to differentiate working at home and living at home
- How it’s okay to embrace your limitations when you first start something
- What causes software to not be great
- Why the principles you apply change as your business grows
- Common challenges growing from a startup to a “real” business
- How to not create jerk processes
- How to determine if your company is ready for growth and how to prepare if so
- Why what got you “here” won’t get you “there”
This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.
Recorded February 18, 2020 | Edited by Jordan Daoust | Produced by Jenny Karkowski
Gary Keller’s The ONE Thing
Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth
Jordan Ambra on Twitter
Tim Bornholdt 0:00
Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a non-technical look at all things technical. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.
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Today, I am chatting with Jordan Ambra, founder of Serenity Software, who helps tech companies build excellent software teams and processes so they can cut their downtime, reduce bugs, foster positive team culture and dramatically grow their profits. Honestly, I found this episode to effectively be a fantastic therapy session for founders of companies who are on the cusp of growth. We talk about the challenges of going from a startup to a real business. I had some air quotes going on around the word real there, ow you avoid becoming a big company with awful processes that people hate, how to prepare for growth, or if you even should prepare for growth, and much more. So without further ado, here is my interview with Jordan Ambra.
Jordan, welcome to the show.
Jordan Ambra 1:38
Yeah, thank you, glad to be here.
Tim Bornholdt 1:40
So we met just last week, actually, through a service called Lunchclub.AI. I'm sure a lot of our audience haven't heard of that. And they might be confusing Lunchclub with Clubhouse. How has Lunchclub been for you? And you know, what is it?
Jordan Ambra 1:57
Yeah, so I think Lunchclub kind of tricked me into signing up for their service. I think sent like an email like, Hey, one of your friends is on Lunchclub. And they invited you. So I'm like, Okay, sure. Let's do it. I like meeting people, especially with COVID and never leaving my house. So why not try to get on the call with somebody or, you know, see what other people are doing with their lives. So, yeah, I got on, I think late 2020, maybe in like the fall. Opt in. I've met a variety of people. I've mostly stuck with people in tech, though. So the point of it is you hop onto a call and you talk about shared interests, or, you know, it's like you're having a lunch with people, except it's entirely virtual, of course. So, it's gone pretty well met, even within those restrictions, I've met a lot of different kinds of people, like way different, more diverse than I thought they were going to be. But, yeah, that's how I met you, of course, not too terribly long ago.
Tim Bornholdt 3:03
Yeah, I have had a very similar experience. When you're living in your bubble, I mean, and even further, you know, COVID, obviously, we're all living in our own bubbles with just our immediate families. But even you know, in pre COVID times, you're kind of limited to either who you're immediately working with, or if you are in a group, maybe you kind of meet a couple of different people. But with Lunchclub, I've just been really surprised with even within this world of tech, there's still so many different people doing different things. And it's just fascinating meeting people that are going down different paths. And I think you were kind of talking beforehand, it's like we hit it off pretty quick. So I was like, I got to get you on this podcast. And then you mentioned you'd never been on a podcast. So this is like a win win for both of us.
Jordan Ambra 3:53
Yeah, first time. I'm sure we're not going to get paid for promoting Lunchclub this much. But
Tim Bornholdt 3:58
No, probably not.
Jordan Ambra 4:00
I really like it actually. I wish it had existed like 10 years ago. I first started working remotely probably in I think 2008 and one of the things that I quickly realized was how lonely I was, you know, working from home even though you know, I was married and you know, we had time together in the house. But I realized one week that like it was Friday afternoon and I literally had not stepped outside of my house. I'm like, Okay, I'm pretty sure this isn't healthy. So I got to at least see some people this week, even if it's just like phone calls or something but preferably, you know, get outside. And I'm glad to have learned those lessons. It's turned out to be really helpful with the pandemic and lockdowns and all that kind of stuff that kind of prohibits you from meeting people, which is helpful. It's crucial, I think, to maintain relationships with people and at least for me, even though I certainly don't mind being by myself, I also just really need to be around people. You got to keep up a mix, I think.
Tim Bornholdt 5:04
It is hard. I've noticed, you know, the last couple of months with my work having been super busy and abnormally stressful in a lot of aspects. And, you know, when I'm here working, I kind of pace around the house, especially being in Minnesota, the last couple of weeks have been like, air temperature has been negative 20. And then with the windchill, it's like negative 40, negative 50. So it's like, normally, I can just pace around the neighborhood and kind of walk outside and get a change of scenery. But when you're stuck in your house, just kind of pacing, I pace in this lap between the living room and my kid's bedroom. And you kind of get these associations when you're on calls with clients and stuff of you know, negative feelings. And when you're pacing back and forth in your house, you know, during work, you gather those feelings, and then after work, it's like, you don't get to just leave those feelings aside. You've experienced whatever you went through during the day in the same place that then you're supposed to relax at night. So, it's been interesting, like you said, kind of moving to a more permanently remote world, just how do you get those outer interactions and kind of find a way to differentiate working from home versus, you know, living at home?
Jordan Ambra 6:26
Yeah, that's so true. I think everyone has to really do a better job. It's sort of set for you when you're working in an office. You have to really be conscious of, Hey, what actually are my boundaries? You don't have, you know, a commute to sort of segment off your personal from your business life. And you really have to think about it like, Okay, well, how am I gonna approach this? So that you don't end up you know, either getting distracted and not serving your employer very well during your work hours, or alternatively, you end up you know, seven, eight o'clock at night, and you haven't seen your family or haven't taken care of yourself or, you know, whatever your personal and familial needs are, right? It's really easy to forget how important that built in boundary was for people who weren't working remote before this. You have to discover, you know, Hey, what can I do to, you know, be structured about my day and make sure that I'm taking good care of myself and staying healthy? Especially for long term, you know, I think we're on our 50th week of our 14 day lockdown now, so just flatten the curve. And I think that didn't work. So here we are. And, you know, we don't really know when this is going to end. So really, looking into the long term of how we should take care of ourselves is super important.
Tim Bornholdt 7:55
Yeah, I mean, if I hear one more person say, these are unprecedented times, I'm gonna freak out. But it's like, just because it's been said so much, doesn't mean it's not true. Like, we've never been in a time before where a vast majority of our population can work from home or maybe not even can work from home, but is required to work from home. And there's going to be a lot of, you know, kind of soul searching and maybe not a reckoning, but somebody is going to come up with some way that we can find that good balance, but it's just something that hasn't really had to be addressed before until now. So I hope that there's more discussions around coping with that kind of a thing. Because yeah, the loneliness factor is certainly real. And the way I've been able to get around it is just kind of, it seems like it's just more of the same. Like, we were talking about Jackbox party pack games before. And that's what I do to try to keep contacts with my friends in real life. But, again, I'm still sitting in the same four walls effectively, and not like getting out and getting to do different things. So you know, hopefully, this vaccine just helps get everything under control, and we can get back to actually seeing people. That would be nice.
Jordan Ambra 9:14
I agree. Yeah, that would be wonderful. I'm going to take a stab that I think it's going to be late summer whenever we get enough herd immunity or, you know, vaccine immunity for people who've already had COVID to actually be able to get out of the house more. So that's my hope. Oh, I'll call it, let's say early August.
Tim Bornholdt 9:35
I think that's a aggressive goal, but I think it is attainable. My working theory has been like November. My birthday is in late November. So I was assuming you know if by the time my birthday rolls around, I can meet some friends at the bar for a drink, then I'll call it a success.
Jordan Ambra 9:54
There you go. Are we playing Price is Right rules on this bet?
Tim Bornholdt 9:57
Hmm, sure. That's fine.
Jordan Ambra 10:00
So you can net it August 2 and win?
Tim Bornholdt 10:03
Yes, but I won't do that to you. I hate when people do that. It's good strategy, but that just seems unsportsmanlike.
Jordan Ambra 10:10
It's a cheap shot.
Tim Bornholdt 10:13
So Jordan, you've been working in software for a long time. And you have done a lot in your career all the way leading up to Serenity Software. I'd love for you to give our audience a little background on what you've done and everything to this date on your entrepreneurial journey here.
Jordan Ambra 10:30
Yeah, sure. I get to tell my origin story. I like it. I usually start on, let's see, I was about 12, I think. And my aunt brought me out to a bookstore. I love bookstores. I was down visiting her and my grandma down in Florida, which, you know, I wish I was down in Florida now.
Tim Bornholdt 10:51
Jordan Ambra 10:52
This weather. That'd be nice. So we went to the bookstore. And you know, my aunt's always been generous. I love that about her. And she says, Pick out any book. I'm like, awesome, great. So I really don't know why I did this. But one of those, you know, serendipitous life moments, I picked out an HTML book. And it was a monster book, dude, probably like 1000 pages, something ridiculous, just like end to end, how to do absolutely everything in HTML. And I didn't really know much about web pages, or programming or really anything. So this is my intro, right? So first step is this completely naive, Hey, I'm gonna read 1000-page book and be a programmer. Well, I did. I read it a couple of times because it turns out that at my grandma's house where I was staying, she had this horrible computer that like barely would even run Notepad, so that I could even make a web page and try out any of this stuff. So I'm just kind of sitting here stuck reading this massive book, over and over again, trying to understand how an iframe works. So that was my first intro into programming. Kind of intense. But I'm really glad that I stuck with it. And I don't really know what led me to pick that book that day. It's been a long time. But I've had a lot of those moments where I've just sort of stumbled into an opportunity that's turned out to be really good for me, and ended up shaping my path, shaping my career.
So not too terribly long after this, I started doing websites for pay and by for pay, I mean, like 20 bucks. So you know, I was just really raking it in at age 17 here, making websites for people. Yeah, man, just super entrepreneurial, right? Just crushing it. And, you know, eventually, I started actually for real making, like better websites. This is probably around the turn of the millennium. People are starting to contact me and be like, Hey, like, I'm really unhappy with my website. I'm unhappy with my programs that I have that run my business. And I said, just, you know, yes to everything. And I sort of developed this intolerance for bad websites. Which is, of course, relative, because, you know, in the year 2000, there's no good websites hardly. So I did my best to make really good websites. And some actually ended up lasting for, you know, multiple years, which was a real accomplishment, I think, for the time.
So, right around there is when I started my programming company. It wasn't called Serenity Software like it is now. I was just running a solo venture, I guess, and built up a lot of clientele and turned that into a side business so that I could make make some money while I was going to school and working for the university I went to. So parlayed that into two jobs. Those two jobs were like corporate gigs, where I learned how bureaucratic people can be. That was pretty intense, kind of got thrown right into the deep end there. But it was good experience, too, because it helped me see that I had different core values than some of these companies. And that's what ended up kind of pushing me away from corporate America and into startups for a little while. Where then I realized again, like, Okay, well startups have all these issues too. It's not exactly ubiquitous that everyone has software problems. There are some really good shops, but, you know, I've found over the years that these people who are working in startups and think, you know, we're changing the world, we're doing everything right. Like, that's true to a degree. But your dysfunction just looks a little different from the people who you're fighting against, in that David and Goliath startup stories and things. So you know, my goal kind of shifted over the years from, you know, just escaping corporate America to I want to go join a startup because that sounds cool too. Eventually, I wanted to start making an impact and help people and serve.
So that's around when I started taking business a little more seriously. I founded my company. And we were doing like dev for hire, gun for hire type stuff for a long time, trying to take on the jobs that were too hard and too scary for other companies, which is probably too ambitious. But you know, it worked for me. And, you know, we learned a lot. I learned a lot of hard lessons about how software gets built and how it's built well, and how it's built poorly. And it gave a lot of perspective. And I think that over the years, we just learned enough of these important lessons to just think, Okay, well, do I want to just hide all this stuff in my own brain? It doesn't seem fair. I don't want to be like some old fart who's like super proud of their arcane knowledge that they've earned over the years, but won't tell or share or teach anybody. That doesn't seem right. Everyone hates that guy.
So I started looking, I don't know, maybe four or five years ago, into, like, how can I actually be more impactful? How can I help people more? And I started trying to turn outward the learning and the experiences that we have had. And I've tried to turn that, especially in the last couple of years here into, you know, how do we, as a world make excellent software? Not all software has to be excellent. Some stuff just needs to get out there and be done with it and meet the need. But you know the stuff that we depend on, the long term startups that have really important products. Even if they're only important to a small group of people, they're still important to those people. So how can we make that software the best that it can be? And the end goal here is how do we serve our customers properly and well to the best of our abilities. So that's where I've come from, started from sort of accidentally picking up a book about HTML in a bookstore. So thanks to my aunt, and probably Barnes and Noble, or whatever it was, and kind of moved that over time to finding my life's work as somebody who wants to help the world make better software.
Tim Bornholdt 18:26
Jordan Ambra 19:52
I'm pretty sure it was either HTML 3.2 Complete or HTML 4 Complete. It was one of those. I think it was HTML 4.
Tim Bornholdt 20:01
Man, so you didn't even get like the dummies book. Tt was the full on Bible of just, here's the raw information. Go figure it out.
Jordan Ambra 20:10
Yeah, no HTML for absolute morons who can't even wash themselves. That wasn't my book. It may as well have been though. It comes with this really important, like, principle, I think, which is, it really is okay to start small and crappy and be bad at things. And like being willing to do that, I think is really what separates out entrepreneurs who are successful from people who just, you know, kind of have to ride on their own emotions and their own willpower, you know. That drains after a little while, and you really just need to be okay with, you know, not being very good at things for quite a while, especially if you're just starting programming, or you're just starting a new business or just starting being, you know, some extra facet of what you are, you know, entrepreneur, or startup captain or project manager, whatever that is, right. Like, it's okay to be bad at it for a while.
Tim Bornholdt 21:10
That's such an important lesson. And I think it's the first of many to come on this episode. But I feel, again, akin to that sentiment, because, like, lately, there's been things that we've been working on in our company, and we've been around for nine years now. But there's things where we're just finally able to get to the point where we can address them. Just certain things you know you need to do, things like, you know, code review, and getting like continuous integration things set up. And it's kind of the stuff that it comes with time, but it's okay, you know, to start, like when you first start, to not have all of that stuff. And as long as you're continually working to improve, and you check off the, you know, the low levels of the pyramid, if you're thinking of like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, or something, you know. You got to take care of the base first. And once you have those base elements in place, then it's okay to like, improve and iterate and get better. And that's what we preach to our clients all the time. With software, you have to keep iterating on it in order to make it the best software can be. And it absolutely is the same if you're trying to run your own business.
Jordan Ambra 22:19
Absolutely. And, you know, you and I both started our companies small, where it's like, hey, it's me in a room or you and your partner in a room, and you're just doing the best that you can, and you have limited resources, right? Like you don't have all day, 24 hours a day. You don't have all the energy in the world, like you need breaks, you're human. And you know, we're gonna end up talking about that humanity I think more in this episode, but you know, it's embracing those limitations and understanding that you have resource limitations is just super crucial to actually doing things well over time in the long run. So I hope we can talk about that soon. Because I love that part of talking about software, where it's not even actually the software itself. It's all about the people.
Tim Bornholdt 23:09
Well, let's unpack that a little bit. How do you see, you know, software? A lot of people think that software is, you know, a silver bullet or if you have a process that you can just say, Okay, let's put some software around that and call it a day. But I mean, as you and I know, how many 10s of 1000s of project management tools are out there? How many communication platforms do we have? Every problem under the sun has been solved with software yet it seems that organizations still have problems. Is it really because of the people or why do you think that is the case?
Jordan Ambra 23:46
Yeah, that's such an important question. And one of the things that we try to help our clients get clarity on, you know, How can you make sure that the software that you're building is done right? And, you know, there's the important flip side to that coin of, Okay, well, what causes software to not be that great and be horrible sometimes? And sometimes it's an easy fix, like, it's a lack of knowledge, or someone didn't know, hey, like, we could have done it this way and it would have been easier. Sometimes it's a lack of consistency and process. And those seem to be fairly straightforward, too, for the most part, like they just take time, and resources to implement, you know. Like you were talking about putting in good processes for code review, and you know, continuous integration, that sort of thing. You know, it is crucial for a mature software shop or a mature software product to have those things in place and improve on those processes over time too.
But often what it comes down to and the reason that so many companies struggle is because you can't just universally apply every principle to your own business because humans are unique individuals. Granted, we have, you know, common traits, similar personalities, sometimes similar values even. But you know, especially if you have a team that's diverse in background, managing that in a sort of rubber stamped kind of style leads to a lot of friction. You get companies that think, Okay, well, we've got this silver bullet of implementing Scrum, and we're just going to go do it. We read a book, let's put it into our team, and you know, everything's going to be great. We're going to have a wonderful project management process, never going to slip on deadlines, everyone's going to be happy and know exactly what they're doing at all times. So you know, anyone with more than a couple years of software experiences is going to know that that isn't necessarily going to fix your problems. You know, the values behind Scrum help, the values behind agile development help. But it depends so much on the individuals who are working at your company, like, what is their capability to learn that if they've never been in a system like that before? What if you have like a guy or a girl who's new at, you know, doing project management, like are they going to be successful in that role? Maybe. So sometimes, it's just like, all the expectations of a particular process or a particular silver bullet working get foiled by the particular people who are in your company doing the work. There's so many reasons for that. And I don't think we could probably get into all of them. But a lot of the time, it's just either lack of experience or knowledge or just don't have enough resources or time to get something done in the right way. You know, we've all got things to do. And it's really easy to get stuck in the day to day and not really be able to think strategically about what your job even is or what you should be doing more than what you are doing.
Tim Bornholdt 27:19
It's so hard with, and I'm adding to the noise too, but there's so many podcasts and blog articles, and everybody has so many opinions on the right way to do things. And, you know, the longer I've been in this space, the longer I've realized, like, there's never one right way to do anything. One thing that I think is funny being a software developer is when people come up to you and you tell them that you build apps, and they say, Oh, I've got an idea for an app. And you kind of have like your life experience around what works and what doesn't work for an app. But I can't tell you like how many times I've told somebody like, Oh, yeah, that app, that's a good idea. Like, you could build a business around that, like, you should go for it. And then they go for it and for whatever reason, it doesn't work. And then on the flip side, somebody has an idea where you're like, That's the dumbest idea I've ever heard in my life. There's no way that's gonna take off. And then all of a sudden, it's the next new hot thing. It's just like you said humans are human. Like we have so many fallacies and things that we can fall prey to with our own biases. And when you look at what's worked for somebody else, that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to work for you. And at the end of the day, you have to just pick what's the thing you're trying to, you know, organize around, and what's the goal that you have, and just make progress to that. And it's probably going to be crappy. The first thing that you put out is not going to be perfect and polished and have all the bells and whistles that you need for it. But if you just get something out there and you just like get your business started, then you can take time to fix all the other things to really build it up and be, you know, a successful product or a successful business.
Jordan Ambra 29:10
Yeah, dude, you're spot on. And, you know, I assume you see this in your business as well. But like even advice that works for one of your clients perfectly, you try to bring that into another client and for various reasons, it just falls flat or gets rejected. Right?
Tim Bornholdt 29:28
Right. And it's no fault for that particular business or not. Usually, it's just like the set of circumstances around one business, you can't just like directly apply those principles to to another business. And it stinks because on one level, like from a business standpoint, it makes sense that if you're a startup you probably can't hire like a CFO and like chief legal counsel and all these things that a bigger you know, further along company has those resources available to them. But sometimes that lesson, it's hard to articulate it for software specifically, where it's like, yes, you know, should there be, you know, test driven development? Like, should we do unit tests and do all this stuff? Like, yeah, we probably should. But what's more important at this point? Is it to get a product out the door and to start getting users and feedback? Or is it to, you know, build out this little tiny sliver of the app, test it so it's 100%, covered, get all your QA around it, and just build up all this process to just get this tiny little sliver out that doesn't actually get the thing done that you want it to do. Do you know what I mean?
Jordan Ambra 30:46
Yeah, absolutely. You know, I think there's this principle that I've used with success, multiple times, which is that you shift your business depending on what level you're at, right? Like, if you're just trying to get a proof of concept working, you don't really need all the extra process and structure and bureaucracy like you do when you have like a business that you're earning millions a year or have a lot of users on, right? You shouldn't treat those kinds of software the same way. So as you grow, your company changes. So the advice that you take, and the principles that you apply, have to change along with your business as your business, you know, hopefully your business grows, right. That's usually the intent for a lot of people. So what gets you your first customers, you know, your first dozen customers or so is fantastic. You're probably scrambling, you know, maybe late nights and just kind of freaking out, like, what do they want? What does the customer want? And then you figure it out, ideally. Or else you kind of have to close shop. Right? Maybe make a pivot. But it's that kind of chaos and action that is non repeatable, that's really prototype based and super dependent on particular people, and maybe even their thought styles, that does not translate very well at all to a mature company. You have to be really careful. You know, you get, for example, like energetic CEOs, or co founders, who can carry the company in those first 6 to 12 months where you need that passion, you need that energy, that 24/7, you know, burn up, or burnout culture sometimes in startups, which I don't approve of, by the way. But it does work for some people. Yeah. But you can't carry that forever in a business. You're gonna kill off your entire staff, or they're gonna resent you and be overworked or at least overpaid, because you're gonna have to pay them to devote their life to your, you know, mad evil genius plan. So you have to be careful with some of this stuff, as you grow, to make sure that you do take time to build in stability and processes, because that's what ultimately lets your company grow.
I think we were talking about this on Lunchclub, but, you know, people hear the word scale, and they think, a particular thing. They think, you know, Facebook level scale, like we went from, you know, our first user to a billion in like three years or something ridiculous. But that's not what the trajectory looks like for a lot of companies, you know. It's usually a couple of years of scrambling and trying to get your first, you know, couple 100. And then followed by, you know, doubling every year, or every two years. And that's normal. That is scale. And you still have to apply the same lessons of, Hey, like, it's not a startup anymore. We need this stability, so that we can run this like a real company, and enjoy the money that we've fought for, and serve our customers better instead of being, you know, psychos every time we interact with them, because we're, you know, stressed and sleepless. That kind of stuff just doesn't fly as you grow.
Tim Bornholdt 34:24
Well, and that leads to a really interesting conversation. So there are a lot of differences between a startup and an actual business, but kinda like you alluded to, there are some commonalities between the two phases. You know, it's never, like one day, you all of a sudden wake up and you're like, Hey, we're a real business. Now I mean, there's still times where I feel like even The Jed Mahonis Group, we've been around for nine years, and I still sometimes feel like it's a startup even though we are like a real business. But what are some common challenges that you see amongst startups that are trying to like make that transition from startup to like a quote unquote real business?
Jordan Ambra 35:06
Yeah. And before we go on, I don't mean to like put down startups or anything like that. I do love startups, and they are real businesses. So I like to be careful with that wording of it.
Tim Bornholdt 35:20
Yeah, thank you. That's a fair point.
Jordan Ambra 35:27
Right? I tell people that I don't have a real job still, because I'm self employed, in a way. So you know, every time you go out to get a mortgage, or anything else now, it used to be worse, but they kind of give you the hairy eyeball of, Oh, you don't have a real job. You don't have an employer. I'm like, Well, is that 20 years of work history not enough?
Tim Bornholdt 35:48
Jordan Ambra 35:49
No, it's not, not to underwriters. But yeah, so with startups, I think I mentioned this a minute ago, but it's the concept of, you know, what got you here won't get you there. And you have to change the way that you're approaching things. And like we talked about earlier in the episode, it's people a lot of the time that stand in the way of that. It's not necessarily the people are the problem, it's usually that in a startup, you have a lot of people doing a lot of different things. And they just sort of glue the company together just by their existence, like, you know, you have somebody who's like an accountant slash programmer slash CEO. It's like, okay, we kind of need somebody who can concentrate on the financials full time, or at least more than, you know, someone else who's distracted. And that distraction and that stress and that context switching, you can do that for a little while, especially if you're the kind of person who can handle that long term. Which again, I don't recommend, because that does lead to burnout. But if you can handle that for a little while, that's great. But as you transition from a startup to a real business, the hope is that you can sort of section off different things that you're doing, so that you can focus on the things that are important.
One of my friends recommended this great book by Gary Keller. It's called The One Thing, I think, sorry, Gary, if I butchered the title there. But the point is to focus, right, like each day, or each week, like you have a thing that you're going to do. And startups really struggle with this a lot, because you're probably doing 100 things. So maybe there's a book out there called the, you know, the 100 things that startup founders can buy. But you know, for everyone else, it's so much better to have a thing that you do each day that you accomplish, without being distracted by your head swimming from a million different areas of your company that you have to solve or, you know, all these different people who need something from you. So there's this element of stopping the crazy cycle of being dependent on people where you shift. And this shift is super important. You pretty much won't succeed. I'll make a bold claim here. If you're a startup, and you don't make this shift, you will not succeed, not long term. But you have to shift from being a people oriented business to a process oriented business. And usually what that looks like is instead of going to somebody to answer a question for you, you either have that automated or documented so that anybody can go figure that out whenever they need it. And it sounds simple. But moving from that strategy, where you're people oriented to process oriented is really tough. Because no one ever has any time, remember, everyone's so busy with the million things that they have to do every day that it's really hard to say, Okay, well, I'm going to put, you know, my entire week into documentation. Who wants to do that? It's like this totally not sexy part of business that no one really wants to talk about. But it's crucial, you know, if you want to grow, you got to get these things out of people's heads and into a place where it's either automated through a process or documented or, you know, I mean, ideally, you just don't even have to do it anymore if you can totally eliminate it from even being necessary.
Tim Bornholdt 39:51
You were talking about Gary Keller's book, The One Thing. I heard him on the Tim Ferriss Show once and the question that he poses is, What's the one thing you can do that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary? And it's like, that's how he was able to grow, what is it Keller Williams? I can't remeber the name of the realtor. That's how he blew it up was because he kept thinking, you know, like, a problem would come up and instead of solving the problem directly, he would go around it, and maybe not go around it, but kind of take one step over it and say, This problem seems to be repeatedly occurring. How can we address this so that I don't have to address it again going forward? And, like you said, it's all about going from him being the one person that can answer questions to he came up with some contract or document or book or whatever that he gives to everybody else that says, Here's the playbook, just every answer should be in there. And if it's not, then we'll add it in there. And that's kind of the mindset.
One thing that I find with running a business myself, and that's the path we've been going down is moving from people oriented to process oriented. Part of you, as somebody that lived in the, you know, garage days of the business where, you know, you are scrappy, and you're fighting for it, and everything's glued together with, you know, hot glue and safety pins and duct tape. You kind of feel like putting process in place is like, Oh, man, I'm selling out. You feel like you're moving towards that world that you wanted to leave of the corporate world where you've got just bureaucracy and different things. How do you approach somebody thinking like that of, you know, being hesitant towards moving towards process or, you know, having those kind of feelings of like, Well, I don't want this to just turn out like it turned out with my old job, or, you know, some other big company I just came from?
Jordan Ambra 41:52
That's a really excellent question. I think the best answer to this that I've heard, I'll paraphrase here, is from the book, The E Myth by Michael Gerber, just a classic for entrepreneurs. Yep. So the intent of any process is to allow your people to be more human, right? If you have a process that forces them to be less human, where they're doing jobs that computers should be doing, you have a bad process, and you're kind of a jerk for making that process exist in the first place. Right?
So like, here's the difference. Some of the big companies that I worked for had these crazy processes for getting approval on an expense, right? Like, once it hit 500 bucks, then it had to go through like 11 different people, and like the CFO of the company to approve. It's just like, who made this process and who's the moron who, like, bought something that was $501 in the first place, and, you know, pissed off the C suite. So these processes come into place and they come in, and they kill off, you know, the energy that people have, because it's like, Oh, great, now I have to go and file an expense report, and it's going to take ages to do and all this other garbage. And those are the processes that you don't want. Those are the kind that dehumanize your people and turn them into somebody who, you know, seems incapable and competent, and is just out there to like, go waste company money. And I get that companies need to protect themselves. But the process itself is probably wasting more money than, you know, some clown overspending on their expense report.
So a good process is one that we set up at a startup that I worked for where we had our account execs who were interfacing with the customers all the time. And they had to go look up, like, all this different stuff, people will call, you know, Hey, like, what's the status on getting this data pushed? This was like a database website service that we had for automotive dealerships. So they'd always be wondering where a car was and why it wasn't showing up. So the process that we built was actually a complete automation process where it no longer required them to come in and ask the car dealers. They didn't have to call in and ask, we proactively sent it. So what we did is we humanized our humans. And we made it so that instead of them having to do the work of computers, you know this searching, finding, compiling all this stuff, we automated it away with the process that helps them serve their customers better. You know, now, all of a sudden, they have an extra 5 or 10 hours a week that they're not on the phone, answering a computery question and now they can think about their customers ad spend or they can think, Okay, well, my client probably likes, you know, this kind of thing. I want to do more of that. Or calling and asking how they're doing and what other things they need. And you freed up this time, where, you know, humans are really good at intuitive and relational problem solving. But if you're beating your entire company down with, you know, bureaucratic processes that make it so that you don't have time for that, then you know, you're screwing yourself over. You're just having tons and tons of payroll and probably a bad company culture, too, if I can extrapolate from some experiences, you know, does that make sense?
Tim Bornholdt 45:43
It definitely does. And I think a lot of times, people don't take a step back and ask why a process is the way it is because I think your $500 example, it rings so true of just how wasteful a policy is. But it was probably put in place with good intentions, like, they probably had, you know, somebody came in and took a company card and bought a, you know, $3,000 MacBook Pro or something. And that was right at a time where cash flow was critical. So the CFO decided, you know, that we can't allow people to do that. And so they put the process in place. But you know, this is, you know, being generous with that policy, maybe they're just jerks, and I don't know. But like we at our company, we issue credit cards to all of our employees. And our banker was like, you know, What limit do you want to put on these cards? And my answer was, I don't know, $1,000. Do we have to have a limit? And he's like, Yeah, you got to put some limit on there. But you know, what would be reasonable? And so the policy was literally just a shot in the dark writing it on a form, you know, like, there wasn't any foresight into these processes. Then fast forward a couple of years after we made that decision, and one of our employees was finding that her card was getting rejected, because she's the one who like, you know, pays for Zencastr, for example, like that comes out on her card, and all these other, like SAS tools and things that we pay for. So we were like, Oh, we hit a very clear limit, and she can't do her job because of a policy that we put into place. And so I think it maybe bears highlighting that if you're in like our role as founders of companies, or, you know, higher up where you can impact and affect these kinds of decisions, you know, I think it's important to realize that, you know, everything, this is like a Steve Jobs quote I throw around all the time, and I butcher it, but it's like, everything around us was made up by people like that we're no more capable than you are. And you can push on things and affect things and change things. And I think it's finding a way to, you know, have process in place so that you have that stuff automated and you've got people off doing things and following the process, but also not being so rigid and, you know, dedicated and devoted to the process that it can't be changed, or you can't have, you know, meaningful impacts on what those processes are.
Jordan Ambra 48:09
That's a really insightful point. There's two kinds of processes that are bad. There's the kind that exists and is causing problems, for whatever reason, and there's the kind that doesn't exist yet and that's causing problems. So, you know, as a leader in your company, whether that's, you know, higher up co founder kind or less, you, I feel like, have a responsibility to clear the way for the people who are depending on you. And, you know, sometimes that means, you know, evaluating, like, Hey, do we have good processes in place? Or, hey, we have this process, it's a couple of years old, how's it going? Like, what do the people think who actually use this process? You know, these are not, you know, I wouldn't say this is like the most insightful thing in the world. But, you know, we just kind of forget that these things need to be done. And it's this housekeeping of running a business that is really important, and it affects other people's lives in a really real way. But it's easy to forget as a founder, or, you know, just somebody who's been in a company for a long time, like, hey, this kind of stuff needs to be swept up after a while, cleaned up, maybe changed a little bit. Maybe even done away with, if possible.
Tim Bornholdt 49:51
Yeah, a lot of the people who listen to this podcast are, you know, people that want to like start a app-based company or they you know, work as a product owner on an app, and, you know, thinking about those entrepreneurs that have maybe, you know, gotten their app off the ground, but are having an eye towards growth, I think, based off of what we've just been talking about, maybe that kind of answers the question itself. But do you think that, I'm trying to get at where the attention should lie for these founders. When you're talking about growing and scaling, and, you know, like you said before, not every company is Facebook, that's going to go from one user to 3 billion users in, you know, a couple of years. Most companies experience growth in these kind of staggered, staged ways. And I think a lot of people put an outward emphasis on we have to reinvest in technology and reinvest in, you know, the product stuff, which makes a lot of sense. But do you think that there needs to be like more emphasis and more, like, you know, care put around the rest of the business and not so much a focus on when you're talking about scaling and growing a product? You know, obviously got to worry about like, do you have enough servers to handle your app? But do you think that people should be maybe putting more emphasis on how do you scale those internal processes? And how you do things as a company?
Jordan Ambra 51:19
Yeah. So I think a good place to start is actually, first of all, do you need to prepare for growth? If you don't actually have a sales pipeline, where people are beating down the door to become your customer, you don't have a scale problem yet. You have a sales problem. So why invest any of your hard earned cash into payroll for people to build out like all this stuff for scale, if you just don't even need it yet? Like a tiny little server, literally, one server will run a business for its first, you know, 1000 customers or so sometimes, depending on the business, of course. But you know, people get it in their head, like, Okay, we got to scale, we got to scale. But do you? Are you sure? Like, you don't need to be the next Facebook, in terms of your infrastructure and your servers and such, to really support a good solid product. You know, I'm not saying that you should run your business on one server. That's kind of idiotic. But, you know, the point is that people really underestimate how fast computers are, for one. And for two, like how little people actually use their product. Yeah, if someone's sitting on your product, like 24/7 and just constantly clicking the refresh button, it's not like they themselves are responsible for, you know, 100,000 hits on your site. So it's important, I think, before you even get to the point of, you know, do we need to try to scale our technology to how can we prepare for growth in a reasonable way. This is a little tough, because this gets outside of our technology sandbox, so to speak. But I don't think that things should be as sandboxed in the business as they tend to be. I think a lot of companies struggle, because there's this real gap, especially between the sales team, or if there is a sales team, sometimes it's just someone, and, you know, the people who are writing the code, right. And that gap alone is probably responsible for most of the tension in a young company. Not knowing what the sales process looks like is almost fatal. Because you just have no clue as a programmer, like what actually needs to happen. You can't provide insight for things that you don't know exist, you know, and if you don't know that your customer exists, or what they like and dislike, what their needs are, how are you really supposed to build something that serves them? Right?
Like, if we go back to the first principle here that we're trying to serve our clients best, you need to understand them really well. So my hope is that we can fix some of these problems when I advise clients of you know, Hey, like, this is a simple communication problem. Invite your programmers to go out on a sales call with you every once in a while. Call your sales guys in and have them watch you build a feature, so they can understand how hard it is to build something and make it work right all the time. So that these communication gaps are actually what causes a lot of the scale problems at companies. It's not so much that you need more servers are, or other things. It's that you need better communication. You need to work together better.
Tim Bornholdt 55:06
That's a really good insight. Because, I mean, even today, like I had a call with one of our clients, and he was expressing how, you know, there's an issue between what he was expecting the app would work, how the app would work, and our developer is having a hard time understanding, you know, what he wants. At the end of the day, it's like, all these problems that I've seen as our company is growing has, at the end of the day, come down to communication. There's this long standing myth of, you know, software developers, just basically, I always equate it to like Moses descending down with the 10 Commandments from Mount Sinai and being like, Alright, here you go, I bestow upon you the wisdom of the elders, and you go forth and prosper. And it's so irritating almost as a business owner, now, being a level above that of not only, it's great to have an intimate understanding of, you know, the development process, and I do get how hard it is to build out features. But my weakness was just like you identified, sales, like, I'm supposed to be as the owner, you know, I'm in charge of sales. And we didn't have a process. We didn't have any like outbound. I still don't think to this day have secured a single project as a result of outbound efforts. And I don't say that to brag, I say it as almost a point of contention, because it's like, we should be going out and telling people about our services and helping people out. But I've never taken the time to, you know, first of all, acknowledge that sales, in some respects, is just as hard as building the feature itself. But it's like having that kind of, what do you call it, like, just having the wherewithal to understand how difficult sales is, and embrace it, and not just be like, Oh, that's somebody else's responsibility, or that's, they do their thing, and I do my thing. It's like, anytime we've had success with clients, or internally or wherever, it's because we've had crystal clear communication, and it's not so much even that I need to be an expert with sales or, you know, accounting or whatever you want it to be. Just even in this country alone, it's like you have a hard enough time convincing more people that, you know, these people that have been studying infectious diseases for their entire career, are somehow less intelligent about that field than somebody who went on Facebook and found a post, you know. We need to go back to understanding that we're not all going to be experts at everything. But at the same time, you have to have some, like, empathy and understanding of people that are doing different things. Because at the end of the day, we all have to work together in order to, you know, make a business grow, or just straight up be prosperous.
Jordan Ambra 58:08
It's really a good point. You know, I think Google went and spent like, three years and some crazy amount of money researching, like, why certain teams succeed, and others don't. And, of course, it boils down to like, five obvious reasons, most of which are, like, feeling safe with the team you work with, and being able to respect them, you know, and communicating well. And, you know, people tend to think of themselves in teams or tribes, and a lot of us just naturally split ourselves into that. But that can be dangerous, because then you kind of end up in your own little world with people who are doing the same job as you. And that's dangerous, at least as a small company, where you don't have enough crossover. You don't have enough communication to really understand what other people are doing.
And interestingly, as I've had to learn sales myself as a business owner, I've, you know, seen some of these parallels to software development too. Like, you're basically suffering from constant rejection, and someone not liking what you're doing or not understanding or to otherwise not working for a long time until you finally hit success, so to speak, your first success, and then you try to solidify that and make that better and repeatable. You know, that's just like a lot of software features get developed. You're sitting there banging your head against the wall, trying to understand like, why something won't frickin work or your code won't compile. And then finally, you get it right. And you're like, Yes, it's the moment. And then you, you know, solidify it. So there's a lot of parallels in the attitude, and you know, even the compatibility of people who are in sales with people who are in programming. You know, I don't buy into this whole myth that, you know, programmers are these boring people who, you know, are so introverted that they can't hold a conversation. You know, I've met plenty of people in all fields who are just like that. It's not unique to programmers. So like, you know, get your programmers hanging out with the rest of the team. Get this cross team functionality, hang out, talk with each other, have fun.
Tim Bornholdt 1:00:23
And on that same note, it's like the people that I know that are programmers that are not practicing programmers, but like, you know, they know how to build websites, or they've done it, but now they've gone off and done something else. It's like that mindset of being willing to, you know, fall on your face repeatedly over and over and over again, until you finally get the thing to work the way that you wanted it to, and you see that first success and you move forward, it's like, something about software development really teaches grit. And that's something that it's hard for a lot of non technical startup founders to really appreciate is, you know, people think, like, Okay, you know, someone asks me to build them an app, and I tell them, Okay, well, it'll be, you know, X dollars, and it will take Y months to build out. And so they go in, and they're like, Okay, well, this is my budget, and this is my timeline, and it's good. And then you know, y month turns into y plus one, because, you know, some big feature came up that we couldn't foresee, and you have to, you know, think on your feet and change things. And it's interesting the kind of person who gets that and rolls with the punches and is able to adapt versus the kind of person who is like, Nope, like, we agreed to this, and it has to be like this. And there's no like, you know, kind of diversion of that. It's always just like, No, you have to hit your deadline. And it has to be the way it is. And I don't think that that's necessarily, you know, conducive for being a great owner of a software company, but that might be neither here nor there.
Jordan Ambra 1:02:01
But I think that comes down to your attitude again, and it's usually an incorrect focus. If you're, you know, hell bent on meeting a deadline and other things, you have to ask yourself, Am I trying to meet that deadline for my sake? Or am I trying to serve my customers? And, you know, you really have to be willing to do that introspection there, like, Okay, well, am I just being selfish? And, you know, if you are, then maybe you can just change things so that you are focused on what your client actually needs. Because a lot of the time when things delay, it's, you know, something changed, or something was a lot harder to get right. But if you're wanting to get it right for your client, you know, some things are worth taking the time for.
Tim Bornholdt 1:02:47
And as long as you're being upfront with communicating, you know, that you are behind, or that you are running into those issues. that's definitely an important thing with this. But, you know, I think it's one of those things that when people come up with, Hey, I have an idea for an app, you don't necessarily think about the trough of despair, or whatever they say in Silicon Valley, ffor when you get down, and things aren't going the right way. Because it happens with every project, let alone, you know, every tech project, there's always this point when you're first building it, where it's like, it feels like you're, you know, 1000 miles away from actually completing it. When in reality, you know, you're at the five yard line, to kind of cross metaphors a little bit. But I think there's just a lot to be said about having that right mindset and communicating and everything like that. When you get all of that in alignment, and your have your team moving forward, then that makes problems like growth and scale a lot more easy to solve. Because you're able to see these problems, as like sales, say, you know, Hey, we're getting a big influx of customers. And then you know, the product team can react to that and help spin up an extra server or do, you know, whatever they need to do. If you can really find ways to make those processes make your communication more efficient, then you start to build trust, and then you can really work together as a team to solve any of these scaling problems as they pop up.
Jordan Ambra 1:04:23
Yeah, you're right. And I didn't really answer your question about scaling earlier. But I know you're right there. Like if you do have sales coming in, and you do know that you're going to grow, like you're going to double or triple or more in the next, you know, 18 months or something like that, then yeah, you do need to prepare and not to toot my own horn too much here, but that is a really good opportunity, in my opinion, to just kind of re-evaluate, either with the help of a company like mine, or you know, you can do it yourself, certainly, as long as you have, you know, the energy, the resources, the experience to do it. The hope is that when you're at that reflection point in your company where you're like, Okay, I need to grow. I need to predict the future a little bit here, like, how much are we going to grow? What's going to prohibit us from doing that? And you know the experience that I've had with a lot of startups that are at this point is that they're not really willing to do the hard work here of changing, you know. Again, like what got you here won't get you there. And you need to be willing to stop doing things like you've done them, you know, sometimes you need to like, you need to rewrite your app before you can scale. I hope it's not that drastic, but you know, that's just the case for some people, like it's built on a prototype, and it's garbage and really difficult to maintain. You're gonna waste, you know, an entire team's worth of time. So, figuring out if you need to make a really hard decision like that, of do we need to rewrite? Or hopefully, it's an easier decision, like, Okay, we need to hire more, because we're going to need more people on staff to serve our customers or to build out features to serve our customers.
You know, a lot of the time you want to make hires at this point to build in processes, like I was saying, or we were discussing earlier, you know, you're trying to replace people with processes. Unfortunately, sometimes the people that you're reliant on are not capable of converting themselves into a process, right? That's not the way they're wired. It's not the way they think, you know, it's more like, you need somebody who is systems driven, who is process driven to come in and say, Okay, you've got this person here who is the key to your customer support. He knows exactly how to serve your customers. Okay, we need to convert that person into a help desk, essentially. And we need to build in a business process around how do we serve our clients better as a help desk? And, you know, do we need to integrate that helpdesk with our actual product? Do we need to integrate with, you know, some outsourced company somehow, right? So these are these decisions that you have to make where you're trying to extract this information and this workflow out of your people and consolidate it into processes, or maybe get rid of it if you don't need that process or that thing to happen anymore, as you scale. Maybe it's a waste of time. And they've just been doing it, because they thought it was necessary.
So as you scale, these are the kinds of hard things to look at. And it's actually really hard, in my opinion, to get good feedback, as an owner of a company, or to even be able to properly self reflect on this. There's a problem here of incentives. You know, when you hire somebody, and they're on your payroll, not everyone's going to tell you the truth, the full truth of all the dirty, awful things that are happening in your company. And, you know, they're not incentivized to tell you the truth. They are incentivized to keep their themselves on payroll, so they can feed their families and themselves. Right? So, again, tooting my horn here, that's where there's a good opportunity to hire somebody to come in and be like, Okay, well, here's where you have room for improvement. Here's the issues that are currently plaguing your company that will prevent you from running. All you're doing is walking right now. How can you get from here to there? And it's not like you need advice, necessarily. It's that you need better information, and you need a plan and accountability to follow through with that plan all the way to the end so that you can scale.
Tim Bornholdt 1:09:21
Yeah, that's a really great observation, too. What's the, you know, the old, there's 1000 different, you know, metaphors, you could say the cobblers kids with the shoes. I never know what the saying is, but yeah, like being introspective with your own business is super hard. And, you know, being a naive 18 year old, you know, when I was working at Best Buy, it was like, you could see like they would bring in consultants for doing X, Y and Z and it's like, I could have done that or like people will scoff at bringing in outside people to evaluate a situation but you're absolutely right. Like, people are not incentivized to fix things, necessarily, especially if, you know, the example of converting a person that's doing Help Desk like things into, you know, being, you know, buying software that would do help desk things. You're effectively asking this person to put themselves out of work and in one viewpoint of it, you know. The other viewpoint would be, well, you know, we're just taking all the crappy parts of your job that a computer can do and putting them into the computer's hands and letting you focus on, you know, more bigger problems or whatever. But you're right, people aren't incentivized necessarily to change the status quo. And as a business owner, it's really hard to, you know, do that deep introspection.
So, you know, looking looking at the time, I mean, I could do another two hours, but I know we're getting close to needing to wrap up. If somebody is looking for someone to come and help take a look at their processes and maybe help transition their company over into being more process oriented, instead of people oriented, how can people get in touch with you?
Jordan Ambra 1:11:08
They can come to our website, which is serenity.software. I'm also on Twitter, and I've got links there. I tweet about building good software and making things just generally better. That's Jordan Ambra on Twitter. Those are the two best ways to get in touch. I've got contact forms. You can feel free to ask me stuff, or I like talking to people. I'm on Lunchclub. I'm happy to have a chat with people about what's going on in their company, that sort of thing I love. I love doing this. I wouldn't be in this business as long as I am without, you know, actually enjoying it. So happy to meet anybody who's listening. Happy to talk.
Tim Bornholdt 1:11:52
I couldn't agree more. And I couldn't recommend you more just even off the two conversations we've had. It's like, you can tell when somebody does care about what they do. And you might get you know, grizzled, sarcastic, quippy, you know, responses once in a while that comes with age and experience and seeing the same things over and over again. But you know, like you said, at the end of the day, like doing this stuff is so much fun, like running a business is a lot of fun, despite how stressful it can be and, and how many problems there are to solve. It's like, if you're looking for a career where you can constantly be finding new things to work on and improve and you like solving puzzles, there's no greater puzzle than, you know, making sure that not only can you feed yourself dinner for the next month, but also all the people on your payroll.
So, Jordan, I really appreciate you coming onboard and having a chat with me today. And I know we'll stay in touch but please reach out to Jordan, and again, thank you for coming on the show today.
Jordan Ambra 1:12:51
Yeah. Thanks for having me. Glad to have my first podcast guest experience with you. It was great.
Tim Bornholdt 1:12:58
Got it in the can. This is perfect. Thanks, Jordan.
Thanks to Jordan for joining me on the podcast today. You can learn more about him and his company at Serenity.software. It's kind of a cool website.
Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with us by emailing Hello@constantvariables.co. I'm @TimBornholdt on Twitter and the show is @CV_podcast. Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by the nimble Jordan Daoust.
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