Wait for it

It's amazing how fast things can happen when you've put in the time

I missed a week last week! Doh. I just didn’t feel inspired and had a really busy weekend. Back this week, though you’re getting this a day later than planned. Please as always hit reply, say hi. Also we’re hiring designers and engineers at Progression, so please do check out and share our careers page.

This week Kaz and I watched a bunch of ‘Song Exploder’ on Netflix. Each episode breaks down one well-known song, decision by decision and sound by sound, with the artist.

It’s a great format and all the episodes are interesting but as a Hamilton fan, watching Lin-Manuel Miranda breaking down ‘Wait for it’ was a highlight (episode here, song on Spotify here).

Seeing Lin-Manuel and Alex Lacamoire (his orchestrator and long-time collaborator) get excited all over again about a song they must have heard thousands of times reminded me how much I love the musical theatre genre in general.

There’s one point when Lin-Manuel describes how the extraordinary chorus to that song came to him on a train on the way to a party.

‘I can’t tell you where that chorus came from … all at once the chorus came.’

He’d been listening to the chord progression over and over and over. Suddenly in a flash, all the synapses came together into something incredibly fully-formed.

My mum — a music teacher — sight-reads like a demon and can learn a new instrument incredibly quickly (much to our detriment when she found a piano accordion during my youth). Kaz — my wife and an illustrator — started building a wallpaper brand a couple of months ago and she’s already had hundreds of sample orders and is shipping to editors of bougie interiors magazines. These things can look quick and easy, but it’s the years of work and practice beforehand that makes them possible.

It’s almost like there’s this elastic tension waiting to be released in the right direction. Compounding learning and practice can result in extraordinary and often unplanned benefits.

Constantly starting from step 1

Meanwhile, there’s me. I’ve spent my 10,000 hours designing things. That’s now committed to muscle memory in a similar way, but now as a founder, I’m having to learn something completely new multiple times a year as I zoom continually out of the day-to-day.

One thing I’ve been working on this week is our Q2 strategy. Planning in advance for this kind of stuff is reasonably new to me — Neil and I never formalised it particularly when it was two of us, but now we have a team it’s much more important to both have clarity ourselves and be able to consistently communicate that out.

I want Q2 to be the first quarter in Progression’s life where everyone is aligned on what we’re working on coming in — from 12-month goals to a north star metric, contributing metrics and ultimately some of the problems we might explore solving to move them. Doing it with nearly a month to go means we can do some primary research, gather data and gather feedback from the team before setting it in stone.

I’ve been reading Amplitude’s excellent North Star Playbook to structure this.

What I’ve found is that as I read through and follow the steps, all the threads of everything we’ve learned — both from customers, data and talking strategy with investors and friends — have come together quickly into something that makes sense.

I don't want to claim that our quarterly strategy is equivalent to ‘Wait for it’. But I think that when we’re done it will represent the most coherent summation of a strategy that I’ve personally created. And it happened in hours.

I’ve just got to the point where I’m becoming more fluent at this part. Next month I’m sure I’ll be learning something new all over again.

584/500 words.

Thanks for reading this, one of my regular musings on product strategy, life as a founder and moving from designer to early-stage CEO and onwards. You can also find me on Twitter and some older/longer writing on jonnyburch.com.

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Distraction and Flow State

Perhaps we can't blame our phones...

Before I begin, apologies for a broken link in last week’s newsletter. The link to Bragdocs was broken but this one works! I had a few people sign up and give their feedback last week — I’d love more ideas so please do let me know if you give it a try.

This week I found myself listening to the Knowledge Project Podcast — I have to say I do enjoy Shane Parrish’s dulcet tones and Canadian accent. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked (a required read for anyone trying to distract people through technology), was being interviewed.

I’ve both read his book and heard him speak before, but something he mentioned in this interview stuck with me. To paraphrase:

Distraction is not a function of external triggers but internal discomfort with what you’re meant to be doing at the time.

Like all of us, I frequently struggle to get into flow state. Increasingly now, as my role transitions from maker to manager, it’s less important that I carve out hours to code or design. But undistracted thinking time is still incredibly important and something I struggle with.

Putting my phone away or changing my environment helps to an extent, but Nir’s point above really resonates with me. The distraction follows me around because it’s actually already in my head. I look for the email inbox or the Twitter feed when my brain has already become distracted - by the time I’m scrolling it’s already too late.

My decision zoom level

I can roughly categorise the decisions I make into three zoom levels. As I zoom in, decisions get easier and shorter term, but less important.

Zoom level 1: Why?

Often there’s very little hard data in this zone. It relies on lots of conversation, unhurried thought and then decisiveness. You’re deciding what to do on the highest level, and these decisions feel existential and irreversible. A couple per quarter.

  • Why do (or should) we exist as a business?

  • What strategic move should we make?

Zoom level 2: What?

Given the above, what are the best ways of achieving it? These decisions are still often strategic decisions, but sit at a lower, more reversible level. Probably multiple per month.

  • What’s the best way of solving this problem or strategy?

  • What software stack should we use?

  • What hires should we make?

Zoom level 3: How?

The most granular level of useful decision-making. Often tens or even hundreds of decisions an hour, but each is very small meaning the fatigue is lowest and the confidence highest at this level.

  • How should this button look?

  • How should we structure this function, or data?

  • How should we structure our weekly catch-up?

Where I (and dare I say, humans) come unstuck is when I’ve failed to reduce the scope of whatever I’m working on at the time to the zoom level that’s required.

If I’m designing a button and worrying about our quarterly goals at the same time, it’s a recipe for me reaching for my phone and the comfort of the scroll. I’ve lost faith in the value of the work I’m doing.

Equally if I’m trying to solve a strategic problem but start sketching UI or imagining features it pulls me down into implementation which doesn’t help me answer the higher level question.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings says his secret is making as few decisions as possible. Ultimately I think this is the key to flow state and efficiency — reduce the number of decisions you have to make to only the ones you are uniquely positioned to make, and knowing what decision you’re making at any given time.

553/500 words. Thinking of changing the newsletter name at this point. Also it’s late again!

Thanks for reading this, one of my regular musings on product strategy, life as a founder and moving from designer to early-stage CEO and onwards. You can also find me on Twitter and some older/longer writing on jonnyburch.com.

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What did I work on last month?

And the value of building for fun

Over Christmas in 2019, with some downtime hanging out at my parents’ house and fired up by my new-found ability to deploy web apps single-handedly, I decided to ship a side project.

Since starting Progression I’ve been aware of two interesting problems. The most obvious problem to solve from a business point of view was and remains that of helping managers to be better managers by creating clear career progression for their teams. E.g.

When I’m in a levelling conversation with my direct report
I want to have clear expectations laid out over their role
So we both have guidance on how they can grow

This is a great problem to try to solve because it directly aligns with the kind of things managers are measured on — employee happiness, retention, engagement and the hiring brand (or ability to attract new people) of the team they’re building.

It’s also a ‘painkiller’ problem. Solving this problem with no help is hard, boring and takes a long time.

If you’re anything like me, for every hour you spend writing expectations for your team, you’re spending another hour googling to find shortcuts, examples and other ways to achieve the same thing. People don’t want to create those expectations, they want to have created them. Not solving it right now means you’re using time and energy you could be spending on other things.

Keeping a record of your work

The other problem has always been more nascent, harder to pin down. It’s much more difficult to find behaviours to point to and if you try to capture it, it starts to have that bad smell of a problem you want to exist, rather than one that really does.

This is a classic vitamin problem.

When I’m in my levelling conversation
I want to have recorded what I’ve been working on for the last 6 months
So I know how to advocate for myself

See that? I want to have recorded. Oops. Didn’t bother at the time, but wish I had. Just like I wish I’d tracked my running, or counted calories, or kept a to-do list, or bought Bitcoin in 2012 when I was first told to.

Every time I see solutions to this problem within HR-bought ‘Talent management tools’ I immediately feel a wave of cynicism. The #praise, the enforced diarising. It smacks to me of busy work so management can report up, not something that people genuinely want to do.

I may, of course, be being overly cynical, but rightly or wrongly my side project — Bragdocs — came out of this reaction.

If I want to keep a proof of my work, it should belong to me. It should be

  1. Completely private if I need

  2. owned by me, not my company

  3. genuinely useful when I need it

In the year since the last time I pushed code and without any promotion from me, a bunch of people have found Bragdocs and created hundreds of posts.

That means we can now look back at what people are writing and why. Hacking on something for a few hours a year ago has given us an interesting dataset that we can use to inform how we solve this problem in the future.

Of course, that’s if this is a problem we want to solve.

549/500 words. Oops again.

You can check the project out at bragdocs.com — create an account and bag your @handle if you want. And if you capture your work or wins anywhere, I’d love to hear about it. Google doc? Notion? Good ol’ notebook?

Thanks for reading this, one of my regular musings on product strategy, life as a founder and moving from designer to early-stage CEO and onwards. You can also find me on Twitter and some older/longer writing on jonnyburch.com.

Not a subscriber yet? Subscribe here for more of these in your inbox.

Progression update: early vs late

A quick one about the A12

I was planning on writing about social audio and Clubhouse this week.

Unfortunately I got stuck for two hours on the A12 to Chelmsford on my way to illicitly wave from afar at some friends who’ve just had a baby. A good lesson in not relying on a specific window of time to get your writing done.

So instead I’m sending a quick Tuesday morning update on Progression stuff. I thought you might like to know what we’re up to.

A lot of what I’m focused on is timing at the moment. I have a good sense of what we need to do, but making sure we time each part right is critical. We can’t get stuck on our proverbial A12 just as we need to reach our destination.

I also have a request: that you hit reply and give me feedback or just say hello! I’d love to know what you’d like me to write about (more learning-to-be-a-CEO things? fewer ‘pound-shop Ben Thompson’ tech opinions?). I’ll read and reply to everything.

A few updates on Progression and my CEO journey right now

  • In case you missed it (completely understandable as we haven’t told anyone yet), we closed a seed round last year. That has shifted Progression from a hand-to-mouth bootstrapped SaaS into a company that can meaningfully go after a market and invest in the bigger bet we wanted to make. We’re thrilled with the folks on our cap table, the increased ability to move and the support we’re getting.

  • We’re growing healthily and bringing on some wicked customers. Woo!

  • As a result our first two full time hires (Sam, an engineer and Anna, a PM) start next week! We’ll then have a team of 8 on our Slack in total — given in November it was still just Neil and I it feels like a whole different vibe.

  • Partly because of this, I’m really trying to be more predictable and plan work better. We have quarterly goals, a north star metric and we’re running lots of qualitative product experiments and user research. The old muscles of building product as a team are starting to return…

  • However, more and more I’m realising I need to step away from being in the weeds and work ‘on the business, not in the business’. My friend Toby, CEO of Lingumi, wrote yet another brilliant piece of reflection which — though they’re a few steps ahead of us on the journey — illustrated the path I’m going to have to go down, moving from ‘how’ to ‘what’ and ultimately to ‘why’.

  • In short, this year has honestly felt like a breath of fresh air so far. We’re doing really good product work, we have focus over direction and I’m personally being pulled in fewer directions.

  • However, having a war chest introduces the option to spend money to move faster. That’s the big question for me — what do we accelerate now (we have momentum, it needs to get done regardless, so sooner is better) vs wait on (we don’t know enough or some other part of the puzzle isn’t ready).

  • This year, for me, is about being able to stop blocking everyday product work and carve out time to make really important decisions on the above, plus work on other strategic things (product direction and positioning, partnerships, go to market etc.).

  • As part of my focus on removing myself from everyday product work, we’re looking for a senior product designer! If you know of anyone great, please do introduce us.

I’m really looking forward to keeping you folks updated as I more from founder to CEO and learn how to be a better CEO as we grow. Again, if there’s anything from above that you’d like me to dig more into, I’d love to hear from you.

Hopefully this week’s newsletter will be (a) on time and (b) a bit less rushed. For now though, thanks for reading and I wish you jolly good health in your various versions of lockdown, working from home and snowy/Covid times.

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Radio on the internet

On Spotify and the future of podcasting

I recorded my first ever podcast sometime in 2010. Two friends and I plus my then-girlfriend (now wife) sat in a stolen meeting room in an ad agency in south London and giggled away as we played silly games and chatted about sandwiches and farts.

After the insertion of several Adam and Joe inspired jingles, that solitary episode was released a month or so later. We never recorded another one and no, you can’t find it on the internet any more.

More recently I recorded 22 episodes of the Progression podcast, with more on the way this year after a bit of a hiatus.

I can tell you, recording and publishing a podcast is pretty hard work, but way easier than it was 11 years ago.

Podcasting has always been romanticised as an open plain, the last bastion of pure internet expression as everything else gets swallowed up and monetised by capitalism.

A couple of years ago that all came under threat. It was probably Serial’s fault.

As Spotify spent $400MM on three podcasting companies in 2019 and bought out the very popular podcasting bad boy Joe Rogan while VCs started throwing money at paid podcasting platforms like Luminary, the traditional podcasting world freaked out.

Yet now, two years later, the podcasting world hasn’t yet imploded under the weight of all the money.

In fact, aside from a few shows moving about a bit and a new tab on the Spotify app nothing much seems to have changed at all. Indie shows still struggle to make money, but can publish freely.

Now some of the podcasting crowd like Transistor owner Justin Jackson are predicting that “Big Money” getting into podcasting was a folly altogether. There’s no market, they say. Leave it to us and back off, you’ll never get your returns.

But I think we’re just getting started.

I’m bullish on Spotify.

To me, a podcast addict for over a decade, podcasting solves a fundamental need but has always suffered from a quality and distribution problem.

A hundred years ago, families would gather around their radios. There would be shows that everyone talked about. The same became true of TV, and is now also true (though asynchronously) of the best of Netflix and other streaming services.

Serial threatened to be that breakout moment for Podcasting. But at the time, beyond that show, the depth of high-quality content and the quality of the distribution of that content (Apple’s woefully underdeveloped podcasting apps or what, Overcast? No.) was nowhere near where it needed to be to capitalise on that success.

With podcasts now in the pockets of Spotify’s 300m+ monthly listeners, there just needs to be a couple more Serials (or Spotify’s equivalent of Stranger Things) to hit the inflection point that will introduce millions more to the format.

Power law dictates that from there, there will be a wide distribution from the most popular shows to the least. But the listenership size of podcasting will dramatically and inevitably increase (in fact Spotify reported that it doubled post initial pandemic recovery in July 2020).

These are all new podcast fans. Blue ocean. Just regular people, craving human voices, laughs or stories in their ears as they commute, or do the washing up.

So what could Spotify do with this aggregation and leverage?

Perhaps a Netflix-like play makes sense. Curate and control every piece of content, shut out or dramatically suppress open publishing and build a walled garden of the best talent.

To me that would be a poor strategy. Existing free distribution channels means the cost of publishing audio is far lower than high-quality video. Spotify could accidentally create a Youtube for itself to compete against. (I think this is Luminary’s strategy, and I think it will fail).

The smarter move would be to bring everyone in, continue to be the one audio app that owns the home screen and then financially incentivise creators to go exclusive, further locking in subscribers.

Creating the best-in-class podcasting experience has to be a part of it too. I wouldn’t be surprised to see further acquisitions in the recording and editing space (think Riverside.fm or Descript)

This is kind of what Medium has been trying. Unfortunately, Medium neither has the existing paid subscriber base nor owns enough of the blogging market to be able to pull it off.

As we become more comfortable with paying creators directly, there’s no-one better placed than Spotify. That flywheel, once going, will run and run.

So the podcast explosion hasn’t happened yet. It may take another two years, or five. But commentators like Jackson fundamentally miss the power of VC and ‘money’ to aggregate and change behaviour in fundamental ways. Just look at Clubhouse.

There will always be a need for small, independent podcasting hosts, shows and niches. But for better or for worse, it’s the big players that will change and evolve the medium.

I think change is a good thing.

822/500 words. Oops.

Thanks for reading this, one of my regular musings on product strategy, life as a founder and moving from designer to early-stage CEO and onwards. I expect that while I find a rhythm the content may jump around a bit, so please bear with me. You can also find me on Twitter and some older/longer writing on jonnyburch.com.

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