Globes published today an obnoxious article (Hebrew) about Better Place – Shai Agassi's electric car venture. From the first word through the last, it was clearly setup as a hit-job by a clueless nobody "journalist" who has obviously never tried to accomplish anything meaningful in her life.
Disclosures: I'm not an expert on the subject matter. I'm not very familiar with the company. I've never met or spoken with Shai Agassi, and have no other connections I'm aware of with his company.
The "article" attacks Better Place for failing to deliver on a variety of milestones that the "journalist" had apparently expected them to. For example, they did not yet start manufacturing cars or employing 50,000 people in Israel after less than two years since the company was founded. The writer of course has started multiple successful companies, and has extensive experience in building factories within months….
This seems to have been going on for a while now – On the one hand Better Place has gotten some incredible press, and on the other hand "journalists" ripping apart Shai and the company, as if they owed them or the public anything (they don't…). It's sad to see this kind of hit-job journalism which is designed to do nothing more than sell a few more copies of the newspapers. The cost of hit-jobs by mediocre writers is much cheaper than actual journalistic work by journalists. And unfortunately, tabloid crap like this sells newspapers…
So as an FYI to Ms. Shlomit Lan – startups in general, and specifically one as ambitious as Better Place, take years or decades to build. During those years, as long as it's a law-abiding, private company, it owes *nothing* to the public as it relates to timelines, milestones, business models, pricing, etc, etc. Building a great company is never as simple or quick as it seems, and if they figure out half of the challenges they currently face in say 5 years, that will be an incredible achievement. Passing this kind of judgment on the company so early in the game proves you're either clueless, or jealous, or you've intentionally setup a hit-job.
A couple of years ago I attended a conference where Yossi Vardi was part of a panel judging startups. After passing criticism to a couple of the entrepreneurs, Yossi stopped the conference, took the microphone, and said he has something critically important to remind all the judges, journalists and investors dealing with entrepreneurs. He quoted Theodore Roosevelt's 1910 speech (also covered by TechCrunch here):
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Shai Aggasi is the man in the arena. He might fail miserably, but he will do so while daring to make great things happen.
I know too little to determine whether Better Place is good for the environment or bad (I suspect it's a pretty good alternative to buying oil to fund the bad guys and burn it to destroy the world…). I simply dread the day that "journalists" kill innovation and innovators by abusing their power to run hit jobs like this on the men in the arena. Therefore I had to respond.
Finally – to anyone who is genuinely interested in this project, I highly recommend this hugely inspiring talk that Shai Agassi recently gave at TED:
A key to a successful startup journey is to always know where you're headed. The company has to always have a single lighthouse that it is pursuing. More importantly – everyone on your team has to know exactly what that lighthouse is. This might sound easy, but in reality most startups fail miserably on choosing a lighthouse, communicating it clearly to the team, and sticking to it obsessively.
A healthy lighthouse can usually be reduced to a chart. Curiously, the most trivial chart – the revenue chart – is hardly ever a good lighthouse to choose… I'll explain why below. The lighthouse, if properly communicated to every single person in the company, should determine pretty much everything that gets done by by each team member. In a company with a clearly communicated lighthouse, everyone – junior or senior, engineer or biz dev, in NY HQ or in the Israel R&D – should prioritize tasks nearly identically. If your company is struggling often with priorities, your problem is extremely simple to diagnose – you are most likely missing a clear lighthouse.
For a web company, the trivial lighthouses are – page views, unique users, etc. Choosing trivial metrics as the company's lighthouse is acceptable, but the problem is that it will likely be the same lighthouse used by many other companies. That means that that the faster/bigger boat, not necessarily the smarter one, will likely win. If you are the biggest baddest boat around (aka "Google") – you should be fine. If you're among the 99.9% other startups, you might want to dig deeper and find your unique lighthouse.
A good lighthouse is also clearly actionable. A lighthouse that implies action will help everyone focus on the biggest opportunities. For example – when all search engines were focused on ranking sites based on keyword counts, Google's lighthouse was to perfect the ranking of results based on the site's authority. Later when Google was a late entrant to the PPC search advertising market, their lighthouse was maximizing the yield of each ad shown while their main competition was focused on maximizing the bids.
Which brings me to another attribute of a good lighthouse. And this one isn't always achievable, but it's beautiful when it is –
A great lighthouse is fairly invisible outside the company. In Google's example, it isn't immediately clear to an outsider how search results are ranked, and is therefore very difficult to play the same game. A good lighthouse let's you compete in a crowded market while playing a game that's completely different from your competition.
Revenue is therefore almost never a good lighthouse. It is not actionable and it does inherently not let you play a different game in the same ball field. But unless you're doing not-for-profit work, revenues is probably a primary goal for you and your shareholders. The right way to reconcile this gap is to ensure that your chosen lighthouse has a reasonable eventual linkage to revenues. For example, if your lighthouse is to maximize unique users, that can later (if successful!) be translated to advertising revenues.
The lighthouse cascade
Most importantly for startups – a lighthouse is *not* permanent. It should change as the company grows and develops its product. The important thing is to know when to transition lighthouses, how to do it, and most critically – how to communicate to everyone what the current lighthouse is.
Each lighthouse should have a logical connection to the next one. For example, your 1st lighthouse might be to focus on building a big user base, while your 2nd lighthouse might be to maximize the page-views (so the actionable parts are to grow both the user base, as well as page-views-per-user). Each metric should eventually be a supporter of those future metrics.
The lighthouse metrics should not only cascade logically from one to the next, but also eventually have a strong connection to revenues. Choosing a good lighthouse and planning how your metrics will eventually cascade into revenues does not ensure your company's success, but it is nearly impossible to succeed if you (and your whole team) don't know what your lighthouse is at all times.