Reality hits (part 1)

A year ago, when asked to write a few words for graduates starting their careers, I ventured the following:

Often, things are going best when it feels most like you’re about to be sacked.

One aspect of writing is that your own bons mots will occasionally haunt you. At Focusrite, I never felt I needed to save my skin by working 60-hour weeks (although sometimes I did) or weekends (which I never did). At ROLI, in common with the other technology startup I once joined, it’s quite a frequent occurrence. Not part of the culture, but a necessity nevertheless.

Start-ups do more with less: embracing greater technical challenges with less money, fewer staff, and very limited previous experience. Everbody carries the balance of the company’s success or failure.

Those involved in any business face challenges of an individual and team nature that are competitive, all-consuming, and at once rewarding and livelihood-threatening. Although neither war nor sport, the nature of business is such that it may readily use military or athletic metaphors without appearing ridiculous. What helps is that business, unlike sport or conflict, is not a zero-sum game. We’re putting something new out there, and if we win, it won’t be at anybody else’s expense.

Seaboard GRAND
Seaboard GRAND

At the moment, ROLI doesn’t feel like a job. It’s more like a hobby with an element of danger. Everybody’s genuinely brilliant in a way that I’ve never experienced to this degree in any other company: motivated, pleasant, smart, and positive, and work feels like socialising. I risk making ROLI sound like a cult, or myself a victim of the sunk cost fallacy. It isn’t, and I’m not, but people continue to inflict upon themselves the pain of a start-up only because they want to.

A new technology company invariably reaches its first product through hard work, grand intentions, and a minimum of forward planning. This is what makes such companies inventive and agile with a small ‘a’: we’re carving our own domain. It’s us, rather than the market, that still determines what we should do next. There comes a time, however, when we have to face the realities of commerce, and let the market determine our future.

Such a time comes when your boss embarks on a prestigious tour of the US with a few production prototypes, performing on the keyboard with the help of a product specialist, and shaking hands with a host of frighteningly famous people (who I’m probably not allowed to disclose right now). A week before he flies out, he fires up the prototype on the understanding that we’re pretty much there, and …

Well, not exactly nothing happens, but something not very good. It makes a few desultory noises, and then crashes, taking the synthesiser with it. So he restarts it. And it crashes again. It’s too late to manage his expectations, or anybody else’s. A day later, the whole team is facing his displeasure, and something’s got to change.

A colleague of mine sent me an article about “Steve Jobs’s first demo of the iPhone”: I’ve been there before, and so have most tech companies. Apple’s been there over and over again, and we were there a week ago. If you haven’t watched Micro Men, do so. It’s brilliant, and pertinent to the feeling of being exactly ‘there’: in fact, Sinclair was terrible at this, and eventually made high-profile failures his trademark.

One week on, I have the freedom to sit at home on a Saturday night only because we turned it around, but the adventure has been, and continues to be, an interesting one. In the next post, I’ll talk about we did to overcome what architects refer to as the ‘Oh, shit‘ moment.

Smart engineers don’t make the same mistake twice. Next time stuff goes wrong, it’ll look different.

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