At Least Interview (or: How I Ended Up at IMVU)

Recent conversations have pointed out my career philosophy isn’t as obvious as I thought. Thus, I’d like to share the story of how I joined IMVU and what it means to me and to those I interview.

Why Won’t You Interview?

You wouldn’t believe the number of times I’ve tried and failed to get somebody to take a weekend and fly out to IMVU for an interview. I don’t understand: we’ll happily pay you and your significant other to spend a vacation in San Francisco for the small price of a day’s interview.

There are three possible outcomes:

  1. We make you an offer and you accept.
  2. We make you an offer and you decline.
  3. We don’t make you an offer.

What’s the worst that could happen? Maybe you’ll be forced to actually decide whether IMVU is the right home for you. Maybe IMVU won’t be a fit and you’ll feel a little worse for it.

Either way you’ll have a better sense of yourself and maybe you’ll have stumbled upon a more fulfilling life. Plus you’ll have a free vacation!

I Could Have Joined IMVU 9 Months Earlier

I was halfway through my graduate degree at Iowa State, implementing a functional GPU language. I figured I was headed towards a job working on concurrent languages at Microsoft Research or something. Indeed, that would have been fine! I’m still glad concurrent programming languages aren’t a solved a problem – I can still fantasize about someday contributing to the field.

On July 2nd, 2004 (my birthday!), a guy named Eric Ries e-mails me out of the blue “Are you the same Chad Austin from the boost and cal3d mailing lists? Interested in some contract work?” He was working on some wack AOL Instant Messenger add-on that used BitTorrent as its installer and had a hideous website, so I wasn’t terribly interested. He persisted, and by GDC 2005, he convinced me to come interview.

Once I met the founding team, I came to a few conclusions:

  1. IMVU’s founders were smart. I’d be silly not to work with them.
  2. Coming from graduate school, I didn’t expect much of a salary, so I could take a bunch of stock in exchange.
  3. If IMVU succeeded, win!
  4. If IMVU failed, at least I’d learn a lot.

I wasn’t super excited about the product at first, but IMVU’s founders convinced me to give them a shot, and it was definitely the right decision.

How I “Sell” to Candidates

When I interview candidates, I truly believe that IMVU is a great opportunity. If the candidate is hesitant about committing to such a huge life change, I understand. Moving across the country and taking a new job is a gigantic personal decision, and I can’t make that decision for them.

I never aggressively push IMVU, but I do my best to provide the data necessary to make the right decision. “I’ve been here a while. What information do you need to know whether IMVU is right for you?” I like to believe honesty is as effective as aggressive salesmanship. :)

What This Means

I heartily endorse the philosophy espoused by NetFlix: periodically reconsider your place in the world. I’d be a hypocrite if I said otherwise.

That said, I think our culture overvalues salary. Money is but one (uncorrelated?) component of our motivation. Since humans are notoriously bad at predicting what makes us happy, it’s critical that we weigh facets such as personal freedom, your colleagues, social context, future opportunities, and how your work fits into your personal narrative.

We once tried to hire a frighteningly smart man away from Google. He interviewed but declined our generous offer, saying that his entire social life was tied into Google. In hindsight, the sacrifice we asked of him is clear, and I respect his decision.

In short, stay open-minded, but consciously consider what makes you happy.

Book Review: E-Myth Revisited

E-Myth Revisited was written in 1995, but its concepts date to 1977, when Michael Gerber founded E-Myth Worldwide. I found the book somewhat dated in light of agile development’s popularity and the rise of the Internet. To ensure that I understand Gerber’s arguments, I will summarize them here. To be clear, these are my interpretations of the book’s arguments. My understanding may not match Gerber’s. For concision’s sake, I will write this post as if they are my opinions, even though I may not agree with what I’m writing.

Part 1. The E-Myth and the American Small Business

Chapter 1 - The Entrepreneurial Myth
Chapter 2 - The Entrepreneur, the Manager, and the Technician
Chapter 3 - Infancy: The Technician's Phase
Chapter 4 - Adolescence: Getting Some Help
Chapter 5 - Beyond the Comfort Zone
Chapter 6 - Maturity and the Entrepreneurial Perspective

Gerber’s E-Myth refers to the way we envision and glorify the creation of a successful business: a person with a great idea and inhuman talents works alone against all odds, gaining significant wealth.

(Before we get much further, I want to clarify one point that confused me. The term E-Myth has nothing to do with electronics or the internet; the E in E-Myth means Entrepreneur.)

Gerber’s small business research uncovered an important trend: most small business are created because a technically-proficient employee decides they can do a better job alone, making more money with more freedom. However, creating a business requires three personalities: Entrepreneur, Technician, and Manager. I find it helpful to think instead of dominant desires: Vision, Implementation, and Structure. Thus, small business entrepreneurs focus too much on Implementation and too little on Vision and Structure.

Further, assuming the business takes off, it will require a sound structure to grow. Businesses must be able to absorb new employees and continue to function in the case that the founder sells the business or moves on. If a Technician founds a business and focuses overly on Implementation, she will never have the time to consider how to hire effective employees that share her vision. She also won’t consider the reason she’s in business to begin with – why would customers choose her business over another? What does she want to do with her life?

This leads into Part 2.

Part 2. The Turn-Key Revolution: A New View of Business

Chapter 7 - The Turn-Key Revolution
Chapter 8 - The Franchise Prototype
Chapter 9 - Working on Your Business, Not in It

An entrepreneur’s business is a product. Unless she wants to work on the same company for the rest of her life, she will eventually want to sell (privately or publicly) or franchise. The success of franchises in America demonstrates a model by which a business can be created and scaled without enormous capital or risk. To found a business, consider your talents and desires. Then ask how you can enact those desires by teaching your talents to potentially-unskilled employees. For example, franchising your business requires documenting every tiny detail: dress codes, cleanliness standards, and the words used to greet customers. You set the vision and your documentation conveys it. Without explicit documentation, your vision will not survive implementation by others. (Again, I’d like to mention that I may not necessarily agree with Gerber.)

By explicitly working on your business instead of in it, you are forced to consider these questions:

  • How do customers interact with my business?
  • How do my customers interact with my products?
  • How do I hire employees to carry out my vision?
  • What happens if I sell my business?
  • How does starting a business further my life goals?

Part 3: Building a Small Business That Works

Chapter 10 - The Business Development Process
Chapter 11 - Your Business Development Program
Chapter 12 - Your Primary Aim
Chapter 13 - Your Strategic Objective
Chapter 14 - Your Organizational Strategy
Chapter 15 - Your Management Strategy
Chapter 16 - Your People Strategy
Chapter 17 - Your Marketing Strategy
Chapter 18 - Your Systems Strategy
Chapter 19 - A Letter to Sarah

Before you begin, why are you in business? What do you hope to achieve? Document these desires in a Life Plan so you know what you’re working towards and can measure overall progress.

How much money will I need? How much time? What do I hope to learn? How do I want people to think about me? How much money will I make? Creating a business requires vision, but you require vision for yourself, too.

Before you hire anybody, write an organizational chart for your company as envisioned years down the road. Even though there’s only one employee at the outset, the chart may contain dozens of roles. However, the chart gives you a framework into which to hire new employees and clarify said roles’ responsibilities and success metrics.

Don’t predicate your business on hiring the best employees possible. You won’t be able to find or afford them. Instead, build a System for incorporating and training employees into your vision.

Know that customers are irrational. Know that they’re not buying your product – they’re buying the experience your business offers. Know that nothing escapes your customers’ senses. Aspects as minor as colors, font sizes, the shapes of logos, wording, and timing can affect your customers’ purchasing decisions. Customer needs may be real, but customers purchase based on perceived needs.

Measure and understand your customers’ demographics and psychographics. This data will help you make good decisions.

Marketing is the most important function of your business. Marketing is the reason businesses exist. Success requires meeting the perceived needs of a market, which means the market must know you exist. How will you obtain customers? How will you satisfy them? How will you convince them to return?

Chad’s Perspective

E-Myth Revisited’s biggest takeaways are:

  1. Creating a business around your technical proficiencies is a mistake. Instead consider your customers.
  2. Think of a business as a product that can sustain itself and provide you with the income or freedom you desire. You are your first customer.
  3. Your comfort zone is too small to start a business – don’t let that stop you!

However, the book’s age shows. E-Myth Revisited fails entirely to address the possibility that your business is in the wrong market and thus cannot survive. In today’s environment, I think it’s more important to rapidly build a business that fails quickly or reacts to customer desires and market pressures.

I don’t empathize with the notion that you can’t hire the best employees. Gerber too often uses the example of McDonald’s. While McDonald’s is wildly successful in its market, small internet-based business can scale with just a few highly-skilled individuals. That said, it’s worth asking up front what level of talent you require to scale your business. I wish the book had focused more on non-food-service industries.

If you have any startup experience at all, I would avoid E-Myth Revisited. If you’re inexperienced and you’re considering creating a business, it’s a fine introduction to the issues you’ll face.