How To Handle Criticism

Early in my career I showed a website I built using our company’s software to our CEO. He said, “This would fail graphic design 101″ and launched into telling me everything I had done wrong.

It was a reaction that shocked me but it shouldn’t have. Paul was a man of definite opinions and he was never afraid to share them. Our VP of customer service described his job as “Going around apologizing to people for things Paul said.”

But still his comment hit me like a fist. It was so bracing I still remember it 15 years later. At the time I thought “I can’t believe he just said that.” It was a pivotal moment of decision – faced with such withering criticism, what does one do with it?

It was then I realized there are two questions to ask yourself when receiving criticism:

1. Do you respect the person saying it?

hackers and painters book cover

Paul’s book of essays. Worth reading

In this case, yes. Paul was a man unafraid of airing his thoughts but his thoughts were usually right. He was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. A talented painter, computer hacker, entrepreneur, and writer – I valued his opinion, as tough as it was to take sometimes.

Listening to it required me to remove myself from the equation, listen to it critically and get my ego out of it.

My belief in Paul as someone worth listening to later proved true. After tremendous success with our start-up, he went on to fund some of the biggest tech companies in California – his hits being Reddit, Airbnb, and Dropbox. His photo has appeared on the cover of Inc. magazine and he has been called a “legendary Silicon Valley investor.”

But before all that I knew him as our CEO and the guy who once helped me move my couch. Which leads me to the second question to ask yourself when receiving criticism:

2. Was it said out of malice or to help you?

Some people issue criticism as a way of tearing others down and making themselves feel superior. Ignore them, they are small and pathetic. Along this line – if there is ever a comment posted on YouTube that is worth heeding, I have yet to find it.

I knew Paul was not in this camp because he was equally capable of lavishing praise when you got it right. He later sent an email to the entire company celebrating a different website I created and called it “amazing.” It made me feel like I  hit a grand slam and almost made me forget about the graphic design 101 comment.

In fact his graphic design 101 comment made this later triumph possible. Instead of getting defensive, I took his criticism to heart, listened to it critically, and made a website that was rock solid. We could all use someone we respect who gives us their unfiltered opinion.

In addition, when Paul found out I was working on a related side project in my spare time at work, he set up a special slush fund to help it and to encourage innovation in the company. Paul could be devastating in his critiques but he would go out of his way to help good ideas along.

Over the course of 15 years in business I’ve come to realize there are three types you will encounter – creators, champions, and critics. Creators are the artists – the ones who make products, books, music, performances – things for other people to consume.

Champions are the ones who dare to say “I love this” and show their friends. They go to shows, they buy shirts, they join like minded champions. Critics are the lowest for their job is the easiest. It’s easy to say “I hate this” and list reasons why. Critics sit on the sidelines and snipe at the creators and champions.

Criticism is a prison though for a critic can never create. As Teddy Roosevelt wrote, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

The Creative Office

My manager at BobVila.com was a former musician and saw things in musical terms. When he described our office culture he would always say the same thing – “We’re like a jazz band.”

WCOLTJ01It was a description that fit and I loved it. Like any good band we were a small team and we trusted one another. Following the jazz analogy, we played a recognizable “melody”, ie. produce web content for a home improvement TV celebrity, but in addition to regular duties each member was free to explore new ideas – to “solo.”

In this environment if someone had a good idea they were encouraged to build it and knew they would get support from their band mates. Barriers to working on something were non-existent. Looks cool? Build it. Put it in production. See what happens. What we lacked in size we made up in speed and, as they say in boxing, speed kills.

The key motivator driving each of us was recognition and acknowledgment if you nailed it. Nothing too wildly celebratory but definitely a “nice work on that” from someone. Want to make someone’s day? Tell someone this sincerely and watch their face light up. People will go to great lengths for recognition even on a small scale.

Now if you know jazz, you know that it sometimes goes wildly off course. When that happened we would bring it back to the standard tune. Recriminations and blame were not allowed. That was not only a waste of time, it was counterproductive – punishment for failure makes people less willing to innovate. Creation is inherently risky, you never know where it will go, and no one will stick their neck out if there’s a danger it will get chopped. To be creative you need the willingness and freedom to fail. In all cases it’s better to accept and acknowledge the failure, keep playing and support the next person’s solo.

Working together in this fashion we brought out the best in one another. Most important to our success was the idea of trust, something I believe so strongly in I’ve written about it before. Because we were small we could not afford one bad apple. I’m not saying there were no disagreements (there were) but we kept it civil. One act of sabotage against someone was enough to hurt the whole company. Big egos were a big no-no.

rct-tommyIt was a free-flowing environment and we produced a number of hits. One of them was a regular podcast with a telegenic Irish guy we found from Dorchester named Tommy MacDonald. Tommy was a terrific woodworker, an artist really, and born to do TV but at first he was, err, a little unrefined. The first time I spoke with him on the phone he casually dropped about 50 f-bombs. But we gave it time, coached him through and with each podcast he got better. That podcast eventually became a woodworking TV show he now hosts on WGBH.

My big moment to solo came when I discovered a new service called Twitter. In early 2007, I set up an account and played around with it. After a few months of goofing off with it I thought “Maybe we should set this up for Bob.”

I pitched it to management who, understandably, had reservations. We drew up some basic guidelines and they trusted me to set it up and act as the public face of our spokesman. That trust in me, one of the youngest people on staff, was the key. It was a huge leap of faith for them and I wanted to reward that trust. I created the account, tweeted regularly, provided good content, and never deviated from the guidelines.

Twitter was still a new thing back then so growth was slow at first. It took us months to get to 1,000 subscribers. We were pleased with that achievement. Then one day the flood gates opened up. I was informed of new subscribers by email and I started receiving one every six seconds. I originally thought it was an out-of-control virus or bot. The subscribers kept coming. I had to shut off email notifications, they were clogging my inbox. I emailed Twitter to ask them what was going on.

It took us awhile to figure out but eventually realized that someone, some absolute angel, at Twitter assigned our account as one of the default subscriptions for new users. Whenever someone created a new account on Twitter, BobVila.com got a new follower. It was like grabbing onto a rocketship headed for the moon. We went from 1,000 subscribers to over a million in ten months. Back in 2007 few celebrities were on Twitter and our quick adoption of new technology paid off big-time.

But it never would have happened had I not been given the freedom to create and entrusted with the task. This accomplishment was the result of working in a well-run creative office. An office where employees are encouraged to create makes for an engaged workforce which in turn makes for a productive office. It’s been my experience that employees will work very hard to make tomorrow better than today if you let them.

The Courage to Trust

Back when I worked at Paul Graham’s first internet start-up Viaweb I got busted goofing off online. I forget what I was looking at exactly but it wasn’t  related to my work. Paul was the CEO and he entered the office unexpectedly. I thought “Oh God” and very quickly switched windows on my computer to block out the offending one.

The page I was supposedly looking at. Not very interesting is it?

The page I was supposedly looking at. Not very interesting is it?

Unfortunately the window I switched to was our corporate homepage, a page I had absolutely no reason to be looking at. It was very clear what had just happened. My pulse rate went up to a thousand and I prepared for his anger and shaming. That’s what bosses do when they catch their employees misbehaving, right?

He laughed. He laughed out loud. He said, “The Viaweb homepage? I mean, you could have picked a better cover screen. What possible reason would you have to be staring at that?”

Paul continued, “Let me tell you our web surfing policy – I want you guys to surf. I want you guys to know what is out there and where our industry is going. This is our job. If there’s something out there I want you to have the freedom to look at it.”

Obviously this policy had certain unspoken limits. Watching hours of porn was not ever going to fly. But outside of that, the rule was freedom to look at anything and everything online.

Paul Graham Inc. CoverI came away from this moment impressed with Paul’s courage to trust his employees. It’s served him in good stead. Since selling Viaweb he’s gone on to create 700 companies through his venture fund YCombinator. These companies have a combined value of $30 billion. Finding good people and trusting them has served him well.

Trusting employees is a leap of faith though and many managers can’t bring themselves to do it. For them work is a strict command-control-monitor environment. Employee transgressions are logged and put in a permanent record. Forms are created to restrict employee autonomy. Everything is documented to prevent possible lawsuits. In such an environment, employees are defined more by what they do wrong than recognized for doing something great. The policy is clearly “We don’t trust you, step out of line and you will be punished.”

Unfortunately the rise of social media has only exacerbated bad bosses’ worst tendencies. I have an artist friend who regularly shared her drawings on Facebook. It wasn’t long before her boss red-flagged her and warned her against doing so on company time. The message was sent – we own you. Social media isn’t a creative outlet for these bosses. It’s a better way of monitoring and punishing people’s behavior.

This distrust is a motivational and initiative killer. In such an environment why should employees dare to create anything new that will make things better? Survival in these systems is based on keeping your head down, doing what you are told, and cozying up to those in power to move up the ranks. It’s all politics. In such a system the quality of the idea does not matter, only the ranking of the person who issues it.

I sometimes think of this trust versus distrust concept as a West Coast versus Far East thing. It’s no coincidence that I live in Boston, right in between the two extremes. Freedom to explore and receptivity to new ideas is exemplified by Silicon Valley and Hollywood, home to the world’s most valuable companies. The command-control-monitor method was practiced with gusto in the Soviet Union and we all know how well that turned out.

It’s a simple concept – trust your employees to deliver, recognize them when they do, and they will.

10 Years of SEO – What I’ve Learned

organic-search-traffic-graph

When people ask me what search engine optimization (SEO) is I tell them “Helping companies become the number one search result in Google.”

I’ve spent ten years in the industry now and I’ve seen a lot of changes over those years. When I first started doing SEO work in 2004 it was more about playing games, trickery, and attempting to hack the algorithm. There has always been a lot of money to be made tapping into the free traffic of Google search and sometimes this competition brought out marketers’ worst tendencies. As a side note – no company I’ve ever worked for has relied on these hacks.

In 2004 doing trickery like keyword-stuffing, link-farming, and other such nonsense produced short-term gains, brief moments of fame and bursts of traffic. Some companies like Demand Media (also known as eHow) built their entire company around producing phony content. The heads of these companies would scan through the list of most popular keywords (ex. “How to bake a cake”), pay anyone almost nothing to produce a five minute clip about the subject, and market the hell out of it. The results of these videos are often hilarious. My personal favorite is this one. For a time these phony content producers got results.

This fame is fleeting though because Google is many things and stupid is not one of them. If Google serves up bad content to its users, users stop using Google. So it’s in their interest to serve up good content and watch out for hackers. Since they employ some of the smartest people in the world, it’s only a matter of time before Google engineers get wise, revise the algorithm and punish the transgressors mercilessly.

The results can be breathtaking. Phony content producers Demand Media saw their stock drop from $2 billion in 2011 to a quarter of that in 2013. JCPenney, after briefly flourishing with a link-farming hack, saw traffic nose-dive after getting caught and spent months recovering from it.

Want to destroy your business? Make Google angry. If there is one thing I want you to take away from this article it is this, the iron-clad rule – don’t do things that will make Google angry. If you are not particularly interested in learning more about SEO, just remember this one rule and you can stop reading now.

Thanks for reading on. So now that we’ve established what bad SEO is, how it will destroy your company, and why you should never ever do it, let’s turn to good SEO. This is what I like to call SEO 1.0.

In the beginning, Google search was relatively basic. The algorithm relied a lot on “keywords” – generally speaking, the more keywords the better. There were branded keywords (ex. “Coca-Cola”, “IBM”, “Dave Greten”) and non-branded keywords (ex. “soda”, “computers”, “great writer”). If I do a search for “computer”, I’ll buy one from anybody in the search results. But if I do a search for “Dell computer” chances are strong I will buy one specifically from Dell. These branded keywords deliver more sales by a large margin so it’s in your interest to thoroughly own those.

Recommendations during SEO 1.0 included making sure appropriate keywords appeared on the page, meta tags and URLs. I remember talking to a man who owned a jewelry store who was baffled why none of his ten karat gold rings were showing up in search. I took a look and pointed out all his products were titled “ten karat gold” and not “10kt gold” which was the search term people were using.

Like I said, basic. In fact over ten yeas the standard SEO checklist has not changed much. Use appropriate keywords. Make sure your robots.txt file is in order. Make sure your site is not restricting access. Use 301 redirects instead of 302 redirects for your URLs. Over the course of ten years these basic rules have hardly changed at all.

These are largely defensive measures – moves designed to make your site easier to index. They are basic but necessary. One of these rules is be wary of changing your URLs and removing keywords from them. Google search was a major source of traffic for us at one company where I worked. We got a lot of traction with our articles on “roofing options” and “kitchen countertops.” These articles were well written, had appropriate keywords in the URL, had been there for a long time, and were established as authoritative by a celebrity.

Enter the consultants. After a massive change in management at the company, consultants were brought in to redesign the site. The redesign was, in part, welcome and overdue – our art director confessed to me the site had started to look like a Frankenstein monster. But the consultants neglected the effect of changing all the site’s URLs, something we warned them about. SEO was completely disregarded in the site overhaul.

I was long gone by the time the redesign was implemented but I can tell you the day it took place because of the catastrophic drop in search traffic. You can tie the nose-dive to the moment they flipped the switch. From what I’ve seen on Alexa, its never recovered from the fall. The new site looked beautiful but the drop off in visitors made it as effective as a billboard in the middle of the woods far from the highway.

Now that we’ve established how to avoid losses in search traffic, how does one gain traffic? Ask yourself – what does Google want? Google wants good content. So give Google what they want.

This is something I like to call SEO 2.0 and can be summarized in the statement “Content is king.” Google likes easy to read, informative articles. Producing them on a regular basis establishes you as an expert in the field and Google likes that. You become someone they can turn to, someone to rely on for content.

Winning that trust is not easy. Many marketers eager for quick results turn to producing content they hope will go viral. Fame like that is short-lived. The better course is to distinguish yourself as an expert in the field. Produce good content on a regular basis and Google will smile upon you. In the ten years I’ve been doing this that rule has never changed. Remember it and you will prosper.

 

Lead With the Heart

Before a long road trip, the head coach of the Chicago Bulls, Phil Jackson, used to give his players an assigned book to read. Jackson would select these books specifically for each player based on what he knew about them. He put a lot of thought into it.

Not a book I would suspect Michael Jordan would have a lot of interest in

Not a book I would suspect Michael Jordan to have a lot of interest in

For example, on one long West Coast trip he assigned “Song of Solomon” to Michael Jordan, “The Ways of White Folks” to Scottie Pippen, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” to John Paxson, “On the Road” to Will Purdue, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” to B.J. Armstrong, and “Beavis and Butt-head: This Book Sucks” to Stacey King.

He had varying levels of success with this project. Some players got into it and always did their reading. Some never bothered to open their book to page one.

Say what you will about NBA players but they are not known as big literary types. But converting the Chicago Bulls into the Toni Morrison Book Club wasn’t Jackson’s goal. What he wanted to do was send a message to them – that he knew certain things about them, he took the time to recognize them as individuals, and he cared.

Basketball players make millions of dollars a year. Monetarily, they’re all set and most coaches would treat them as such. Caring is not part of the standard equation. But throughout his coaching career Jackson made sure his players knew he didn’t regard them as disposable, easily replaced cogs.

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The player getting this recognition from the coach feels like a million dollars right now

Regardless of who you are, human beings universally like to be recognized as individuals. Although Jackson never became buddy-buddy with his players, because at some point he might have to cut or trade them, he treated each of them as individuals worthy of respect. He cared enough about them to give them a gift specially tailored to them. The players loved it and they responded by helping Jackson win 11 (11!) NBA championships.

Some critics might say “Oh yeah, coaching is easy when you’ve got Michael Jordan or Shaquille O’Neal or Kobe Bryant.” But NBA history is filled with stories of teams stocked with stars who ultimately underperformed. Michael Jordan never won a championship until Jackson came aboard. As soon as he did, they won six. The Lakers, who had both Shaq and Kobe, lost every year in the playoffs prior to Jackson’s arrival. That didn’t change until he became coach and they won it all in his first year.

Delivering value by caring – that something leaders do. The only reason it doesn’t happen more often is it requires a lot of effort and thought. Much easier to scream, bark orders, and reduce people’s value to a number on a balance sheet. But that’s a dumb method that only produces short term, if any, results. The long term solution for bringing out the best in your employees is caring and giving them respect.