Early-Stage Founder 006: Henry Poydar on Escaping Notification Hell
Hey everybody, welcome back to episode number six of the early stage founder show, the podcast for B2B SaaS founders looking to accelerate their growth. I’m your host, Andy Baldacci, and every Tuesday I’ll bring you a brand new interview with startup founders, venture capitalists, consultants, anybody who has been there before and can provide actionable lessons to help your startup get to the next level.
Today I’m talking with my friend Henry Poydar, who sold his first company, Bantam Networks, to Constant Contact and shares how he is doing things differently the second time around in his new startup, Status Hero.
Technology is supposed to help makes our lives, and businesses, easier, but in reality it seems to be doing the opposite. Today we have slack, we have email, we have meetings requests, reports, the list of distractions is endless.
Henry attributes much of his success to being able to maintain focus amidst all of these distractions, and in our chat he shares the specific tactics and strategies he uses to do so.
If you spend more time responding to all of the things that come up during the day than you do actually working, or need to work long hours to make up for those distractions, then this is the episode for you.
Andy Baldacci: [00:00] Henry thanks for joining me today.
Henry Poydar: [00:01] Great to be here.
Andy: [00:04] Can you start out by just telling our listeners what you're working on now and how you got here today?
Henry: [00:09] I run a product called Status Hero. It's a lightweight goal tracking tool for software delivery teams. I got there roundabout way…I've been building software and leading teams building software for 20 years now. I started as a traditional engineer, I have a mechanical engineering degree.
[00:35] I did some management consulting but the bulk of my career the last 15 years anyway has been with startups as either a VP of engineering or CTO. Mostly in early stage startups and with some consulting work sprinkled around the edges there. My last startup was a CRM tool called Bantam Live. That was a combination of where you see with base camp and high rise, and it merge those tools into one. It had an activity stream. This was in 2009, 2010.
[01:18] That was bought by a company called Constant Contact which is an email marketing company, which is still around today. As part of that acquisition I opened up Constant Contact's New York office and lead a team of 30 people over a couple of years, integrating our software into their giant Java monolith.
Henry: [01:39] Then I left there and I started to work on a few different things, one of which is Status Hero.
Andy: [01:45] Looking over your LinkedIn profile to get ready for this interview, it blew me away how deep your background goes with software and managing teams. There are thousands of things I’d love to talk to you about, but for this interview I want to talk about something you’ve stressed to me before, the power of focus. Can you talk about why focus is such a crucial component of your success?
Henry: [03:01] Focus is kind of a super broad word. In terms of software delivery and running a startup, it's more about engineering your way around distraction. Usually you have some kind of end goal and vision or you should that's been laid out and everybody's driving towards, but, that can get lost in the details of day to day delivery, and it's gotten a lot worse over the last few years.
Andy: [03:33] Really?
Henry: [03:33] Absolutely. I mean, it used to be just email, and not even everybody had email that was sort of the beginning of my career and now it’s data overload. I know Slack is supposed to replace email, but, that doesn’t happen too often. [laughs] Everybody's still on email and Slack. So you've got Slack, you've got email, you've got meeting requests, you've got report requests.
[04:00] You've got all these things that happen on the business level in terms of data, social media, all that stuff. Then, when you're actually doing the technical work of delivering software, you've got a whole another set of data. You've got stuff that happens when you're monitoring what's happening in production, with what's going on, that can generate a ton of data.
[04:18] You've got all of the delivery artifacts, all the stuff that happens with code commits, pull requests, and stuff like that, and all the back and forth communication that's happening that needs to happen with a team when they're doing that kind of stuff and the signals that are sent out when you have continuous integration, when things are built, when things are tested, and stuff like that.
[04:41] It's gotten a lot worse, only because you still have all these artifacts and then they're delivered over a ton of channels. Now you've got Slack, and you've got email, and you might even get text alerts or whatever you've got going on with your team. It's a lot of data, over a lot of channels.
[04:59] Again, focus, in that context, is really around trying to figure out ways to limit all that noise and get to the signal that you need. I try really hard to do that with a number of different tactics.
Andy: [05:20] Right. Diving into the internal focuses, this first one with, not necessary just the technical, but managing the communication within the team that's working on it. Let's go with that a bit, because how many employees did Bantam Live have when you were acquired?
Henry: [05:38] There were five required.
Andy: [05:40] OK. Because I'm guessing that this problem changes as you add more people to the team. If it's just you, there's a lot going on, but you can keep track of it in your head and you roughly know where things are at, but then, as you start adding people, that's when things can quickly get out of hand. Or how does it work? I could be off base.
Henry: [06:02] I think yes and no, because when you're in a smaller startup your responsibilities are broader. I think when you're in a larger company like Constant Contact you would have, say, a person who's devoted to QA. The data that's coming at them all pretty much has to do with QA.
[06:18] When you're a developer at a startup you have data that has to do with QA, you have data that has to do with all development activity, and you usually have a lot data that has to do with the business, because everybody has to wear different hats at that level.
[06:36] Probably, when you get bigger, and you have more people, your role gets more specialized, so it might even get easier to find focus amongst all the sea of data, as opposed to an early stage startup, which is when you're trying to process a lot of information, and figure out what's the signal and what's the noise.
Andy: [06:56] True. As you get bigger, like you're saying, you have a more specialized area of focus, there might be more people communicating with you. You have to keep track of things, but what is your domain is much more clearly defined, whereas when you're in the early stages of startup, it's just whatever anyone throws at you, you have to do.
[07:14] Then when you add in the context, which when you're adding and keeping track of all the different projects…Yeah, that can easily get out of hand.
Henry: [07:20] I will say though [laughs] when you're at a bigger enterprise, in a bigger organization, you do end up dealing with a lot of the corporate overhead that you don't deal with in a startup. Everybody's birthday party, who got fired. All that kind of stuff that gets broadcast across the whole company. Some kind of book camp, or classes, or things that happen.
[07:44] None of that stuff happens at a startup. At a startup you look at your inbox, you're like, "I really have to pay attention to most of this," but when you're in a big corporation you're like, "I really have to pay attention to about five percent of this."
Andy: [07:56] [laughs] No, I want to get into that in a little bit, but right now I want to back up a little bit, because you talked about you had a different tactics to help keep this focus. I don't know a better way of saying it, but just how you keep that focus on point?
Henry: [08:11] Sure. What I do is default to off for every single bit of notification that I need. You're probably familiar with this. When you install and iPhone app, or an android app, it'll ask you, "This app is going to send you notifications. Do you want them on?" I always hit no. I don't want them on.
[08:34] The idea is to explicitly turn on the notifications that you need. This applies to anything. It certainly applies to how I use Slack. I do the same thing for Slack. Default off all the time, default to sleep and then turn on the notifications that I think are important. I make sure that the signal that's coming through to me is actually something that I need to act on. That makes sense?
Andy: [09:01] Yeah. I am just thinking about my day job, when I'm at Hubstaff and I'm looking through my inbox, Slack, whatever. Thinking about turning those off entirely is almost like…induces anxiety.
Henry: [09:18] [laughs]
Andy: [09:18] I'm like, "Oh God, what if I missed something." Especially at a startup it can seem like there's so many files that pop up that need to be put out right now. How do you handle that?
Henry: [09:29] Like I said, there's probably two sides to this. There's the technical side and the business side, and on the technical side it's probably a little easier, because you're dealing with log alerts, server alerts, all this stuff that's happening from a monitoring perspective. A build failed, a build succeeded, that kind of a thing.
[09:47] I think as a developer, as an engineer, you can probably sort out from all that data what's the stuff that you need to be alerted about. I figured it probably gets a little bit trickier with some of the business things.
[10:01] Do I want to get a notification every time I make a sale? Yeah, probably at the beginning I do, but hopefully I'm successful, and that will become too distracting and I'll turn that off. Things like that, so you'll have to adjust over time and you'll have to adjust depending on what's happening in your business and also what the other stakeholders are doing about the signal that's coming to them.
[10:28] To startup, like I said, you're wearing many hats but at some point someone's got to be the end person responsible for X part of the business and so you want to work together with them and make sure that that signal is going to them and maybe not to you so you are not getting distracted.
Andy: [10:47] OK. On the technical side of it though, you mentioned something before we started talking, about information debt. Can you talk about what that is?
Henry: [10:57] I think that happens in Slack a lot. I like to consider myself a minimalist, I'm an inbox zero kind of person. I don't like to let a lot of stuff pile up in terms of information that I need to pay attention to or data that I need to sort through for later. I try, anything that takes a couple of seconds for me to deal with like archive an email, I do it.
[11:21] I try and automate my way around that as much as possible. Inbox zero is something that…there's tons of articles on how to get there. But that is something you can't really do on your own, you have to set up filters and automate your way to get there.
[11:41] With something like Slack, it gets a little harder. Because if you're away for a day, a whole conversation could have happened and you've got information debt. You have to scroll up and see what people were saying or how the tone of that conversation went because not to knock Slack too much but one of the things, they address this with channels a little bit.
[12:07] One of the issues with slack is, it is really hard to determine priority. These conversations happen and often times it mirrors what happens in real life. If I ran into somebody next to the coffee machine or something and it's happening in a thread but something really important might come up and you wouldn't want to miss that but it is virtually possible to go back and go back through every Slack conversation especially when your organization gets bigger.
[12:37] To use the debt analogy, you have to cut information spending [laughs] if you want to decrease your information debt, which means, like I said before, turning all your notifications off, using very aggressive inbox filters and really try and get no signal for a little while and see what you're missing and then turn those notifications back on.
Andy: [13:02] When you say that, that almost, to me, seems like a Band Aid because you're not doing away with that information, it's still there, you're just choosing not to really take part in it. Do you think there is a more systematic ways to control it so that you don't…you're always going to have to parse out some things but, do you think there are ways you can structure the way a team is run and managed and works so that not so much information is created on its own?
Henry: [13:36] Yeah, I do. That's a good point of addressing the spending at the source and not necessarily at the filtering level. That's a great point. For example, if you are a startup and you go create a Heroku incident and you add all your integration, and you turn all of those notifications on.
[13:54] Then you sign up all your developers and everybody is getting blasted with notifications from Heroku and making a paper trail and log entries and alerts and things like that, you're kind of doing everybody a disservice, because you are generating a lot of information debt that they are going to have to catch up with and at some point, some kind of signals that they need to pay attention to is going to be lost.
[14:14] So, yeah, when you're managing a team, absolutely, you need to make sure that the sources of information that are flowing to them are the important pieces.
Andy: [14:25] One thing we've done which honestly ,I'm not sure if it's ideal but, when you talked about that it sort of made sense to me is that what we'll do is we'll use Slack as a tool to communicate and figure out issues. Then once there is a resolution or a next step, we'll make sure to put that into Trello or whatever project management tool we're using.
[14:45] That's the record that exists. So, if you don't know what's going on, you can always default to that and not to say ignore the Slack but it makes it so that you can skim through it and know like, "All right, what do I need to know it's all in one place. I can go over there." That's worked pretty well for us.
[15:04] Have you developed any systems like that to give yourself rules on what goes where and how to limit the information debt like that?
Henry: [15:14] Absolutely. That's another way to deal with it which is through process and established processes. If you are managing a team that's on you, so you need to set those processes up, you have to make sure that they are not burdensome and you have to make sure everybody is aware of them. But yeah, that is definitely another way to address it.
Andy: [15:34] Another thing you talked about is how…when you are trying to parse out what matters and what doesn't, if you're just going in with a blank slate and saying "This isn't important, this is," it's almost arbitrary so one of the things I know you said was important is having the big picture, the greater context in mind when doing that. How do you use that big picture to help direct where you're going, what matters and what doesn't?
Henry: [16:01] It's a good question. As an engineer I'm trained to break down problems into smaller problems and solve them that way. The same goes with running a business. You're starting with a big picture and a context and a mission, then you're dropping down from there into, "OK, what are we doing this year against that vision? What's the road map? What are we doing this quarter against that vision?"
[16:28] Finally into "What are the things that are happening today to move this business forward?" That is probably the atomic level that needs to drive those decisions and give you the context that you are talking about like," Today, here's all this signal that's coming in, how does this match up with the things that I'm doing today to move this business forward?"
Andy: [16:48] Right, because if you don't have that guiding beacon, it is difficult to know what to parse out, it is difficult to make sure that you actually are making progress to where you're trying to get. Do you have regular reviews? Or how do you make sure that that progress is being made and what you're doing today is actually going towards that bigger picture?
Henry: [17:14] Well, I built some software for that so we could talk about that.
Andy: [17:19] Yeah, let's talk about that, I think that it's a good time to shift into that.
Henry: [17:22] So, again, the burden is on leadership and management to make sure that that context is understood for everybody on your team, at all times. It is important. Nobody can work in a vacuum and if they are, they're probably not going to do their best work, at least in software delivery as far as I'm concerned.
[17:47] To that end, that's kind of one of the issues that we're addressing with Status Hero. Status Hero is a tool that basically collects check ins and goals from your team every day and in the next day, asks you if you hit those goals or not. It's just a check box, it's not a list of goals that you partially hit them or not. It's either you hit your daily goal, or you didn't. That's along with a couple sentences about what you've been working on.
[18:15] The idea there is to sort through and give managers a way to peer in to what people are working on, what their intentions are, and to celebrate their accomplishments without digging through all the data artifacts I was talking about before, whether it'd be jury take it to poll requests, all that kind of stuff. It matters, and you can get some information that way.
[18:42] It's nothing like the insight that you get from an actual communication that's happening between you and someone on your team. If your team is forced to say in a sentence what they intend to do today, you can look at that instantly, see if that matches up against your big picture context, and what that means for the business that day, moving forward.
Andy: [19:07] Interesting. Plenty of people already do these daily check ins for the sprints and the sprint updates in general. Why do I need a tool for that?
Henry: [19:22] The common way that this issue is addressed is in a stand up meeting, in the agile world. The issue with stand up meetings in 2016 is that teams are often distributed, people are working from home, or for whatever reason. Not everybody is ideally together in the room for a stand up every day. That's one of the things that Status Hero addresses by collecting the information.
[19:49] Even more so, the fact is, when you have a stand up meeting, as soon as you leave the room, that information goes away. You've got a Kanban or you might have Scrum, you might have these other artifacts around you, but the thing that the person said, is gone. Unless you recorded it, which is rare.
[20:07] When you come back to a subsequent stand up say you're on a Tuesday and someone says, "Yesterday, I did X, Y, and Z." How do that match up their intentions of what they said they were going to do? Stand up meeting is kind of bad at doing that, and it's something that Status Hero does really well with collecting these check ins that take your team, maybe, two or three minutes to do every day.
Andy: [20:36] I'm curious. I want to dig into how this works because what we do is we do daily stand up meetings, but they're in Slack and it doesn't need to be a set. I guess a stand up meeting is not the right word, but what we'll do is status updates in Slack basing on our own schedules in this specific channel.
[20:57] With that, it is still hard to know how it matches up with…we said we're going to do, we'd have to almost scroll back up, see if that lines up, and then you have to personally follow up like, "Oh, why is this different than that?" How would this actually look in Status Hero? Is there like a history I can go through to see, "Does this match up?" Or is it simply it says, "This doesn't match up." What does that look like in practice?
Henry: [21:24] In practice, it takes all that information, does what Slack doesn't do, and put it in one place. You can go by looking through anybody's history. You look at the whole team's history, you can search by tags. Team members can call each other out and search for check ins that have mentioned the team member, for example.
[21:47] The big thing is that it puts all that information for you in one place and it shows in a check in on a report screen, whether that person hit their goals or not.
Andy: [21:59] OK.
Henry: [21:59] There’s a big green [laughs] check. They either hit it or they didn't. That's actually a metric that's used in each one of these reports. We have three metrics for each daily report, which is just a list of check ins. Those three metrics are, participation, so the people who are on a vacation, did they check in or not? Or did they respond to the check in or not?
[22:22] The second is goal completion. Did they do yesterday what they said they were going to do? The third is blockers, which is another big part of agile development. A blocker is something where you need somebody else's assistance in order to move forward. We call that out explicitly because that's definitely signal that managers and others need to pay attention to.
Andy: [22:53] It's something that we're looking at now. At first, I thought, "This is a replacement for the standup meeting." But is more than that. The standup meeting, the way is used, in most cases, isn't as effective as it could be. This is, pretty much, like better stand up meeting.
Henry: [23:15] I think so. An [inaudible] purist might argue otherwise, or a Scrum purist might argue otherwise, but in my experience of doing Scrum and Agile for many, many years, it is. It's far superior. Often times, teams on Status Hero, we use it in conjunction with standup meetings.
[23:37] You might have Status Hero go around and collect check ins, say at 8:00 AM, through Slackbot, text message, email, or whatever. All that stuff is collected and then people will throw it up on a big monitor at the standup meeting.
[23:50] Really, it makes standup meetings go much faster. The information has been collected ahead of time and you're spending the standup focused on the things that affect the team, say the blockers or some issue when someone needs help.
Andy: [24:05] That point, yeah, the standup meetings, they become something different, where it's more proactive. You're able to fix what has already been up there, instead of just getting all that information out there to begin with.
Henry: [24:18] Right. You're probably, at that point, a little more focused on whatever tool you are using for task management like a Kanban board, or Asana or whatever. That's it's based on. Because the check ins, goals, and blockers have already been collected.
Andy: [24:36] Going behind the scenes with this and seeing how you took the lessons of focus of everything else you've learned in your career in software, startups, and in bigger companies, how do you apply that to Status Hero today?
[24:56] We were talking before the call and you have someone else working with you on this now. How do you make sure you guys stay focused on what matters? I guess the better question is what does matter to you? What is your big picture?
Henry: [25:07] That's a good question. The longer term vision for Status Hero is to sort through all of this data overload for you, as a manager and as a team member, and give you insights that help you move your business or your delivery project forward. That's the grand vision. How that manifests itself today, it's we collect these manual check ins.
[25:33] In the future, it could be a little more automated. We could be collecting this data just purely through integrations and summarizing it for you and giving you some insights in some other way. We could be doing some predictive things with machine learning. If we're collecting enough data through integrations, we are going to have an idea about how your team performs and what you can do to perform better.
[26:03] That's the big picture for Status Hero. How we deal with it as a team, is we're on Slack, we use Status Hero. As any other team, we have a ton of other tools that we use from Gethrough, Trello and several track running things like that. We're very aggressive with the Slack setup.
[26:29] Like I said before, started at the channel level by turning all the default stuff off and then turning it on only for exceptions that happened in production, for customer complaints, or things like that. Things that we need to drop everything to pay attention to.
Andy: [26:49] What would be those things that you need to drop everything in if you need to break through the noise like, "These are the things that we pay attention to. These are notifications that we need." What would those be?
Henry: [27:02] On the technical side, it’s obviously exceptions in production of any sort. What’s happening, if there’s a bug, and then there’s kind of a triage process that probably happens instantly in our heads to see what’s going on and to address it. On the business side, and probably [inaudible] those two, is support.
[27:24] We are getting notifications when people are filing tickets, we'll look through those, and see what needs to be paid attention to right away. Someone might have an issue with how things are working out or not and you need to deal with it.
[27:39] In the other side, is the business side. That's more along the lines of business development type activities. Those move at a pace that are obviously slower than deploying every day and doing continuous integration on the product. It's a lot easier to pay attention to those things. It's also a lot harder to get the signal, because you're discerning it from threads, phone calls, things like that.
Andy: [28:15] Do you use Status Hero? Is that overkill for a team or two? Or how does that work for you?
Henry: [28:22] The team of two is full time, but then there's other folks who are helping out on a part time basis. It ends up seven or eight people who are checking in weekly with Status Hero.
Andy: [28:32] Is there a point where you think using a tool like Status Hero would be overkill?
Henry: [28:39] I think if you are a team of three or four people, you're sitting in the same room every day, and having these interactions, maybe. I do think, though, that even just using it for yourself, which is not designed to do, but just to declare your goal for the day, look back through, and see whether you hit those goals or not, is important.
Andy: [29:09] That made me think of one area where I've made big gains recently. Was just doing this personally and was having sort of not using Status Hero for it but just having my own notebook. Just writing down on one side of the page, "This is what I'm going to do today, this is what needs to get done."
[29:25] At the end of the day, reviewing that, and at the end of the week, kind of auditing it all to make sure it lines up. Make sure the goal is what it should be. Just making sure I'm making progress where I should be. It's just that simple self audit. We're going to start up just auditing all those things to make sure that you are aligned.
[29:43] That is so valuable because when there is so many distractions, notifications, and just general noise, it's really easy to feel busy, but not actually make progress.
Henry: [29:54] Absolutely. You have to be careful with goals, too, because you don't want them to be task lists. There's plenty other tools for that. If you have a daily goal, you wrote that goal because, hopefully, you matched it up with that larger big picture context we were talking about before.
[30:14] You want to look back through these goals and not be like, "OK, well, I checked off X tasks this week," but rather, "I met the goals on this day," or "I didn't." If I didn't, why didn't I? Do I need to change something or change course to fix that?
Andy: [30:35] For sure. What I'm curious about asking now to wrap things up a bit, is you talked about the big picture for Status Hero. What are you working on and hoping to achieve in the next month with Status Hero?
Henry: [30:48] I was unprepared for that question.
Andy: [30:51] Sorry about that.
Henry: [30:52] That's OK. We're actually doing some interesting business development partnerships and integrations. We're focused on that for the next month, month and a half or so. We'll be putting some stuff out on our blog about it. More integrations and more improvements to the product.
Andy: [31:11] This is another question that I foolishly did not prepare you for. So brace yourself. There's two things I want to ask you. The first is what do you think you spend too much time on? The second one is what do you not spend enough time on?
Henry: [31:28] Let's see, too much time on and not enough time on.
Andy: [31:39] What I usually do is whatever people think they spend too much time on. Like if you eliminated all of that, what would you then do with that time? It doesn't even need to be business related, it can just be anything.
Henry: [31:51] I think that personally, I think an area of personal growth for me is to spend a little, or maybe a lot less time, in front of the computer. More time actually thinking, and doing more long form reading. I definitely don’t do enough of that. I spend probably too much time ruminating over details and addressing them by typing on a keyboard and dealing with it in some way [laughs] from there. If that makes sense. Introspection is great, I do a lot of it, but I think I could do more of it.
Andy: [32:35] Almost in a less connected way.
Henry: [32:41] No tech involved.
Andy: [32:43] [laughs] That's the thing, especially when you're working with startup, when you're in the tech scene even if you're not in the scene, but you're just generally aware of it there's a tool for everything, but at a certain point you need to step away and just say, "All right I just need to disconnect, unplug a bit and reset."
Henry: [33:05] I agree, I’ve struggle with that. I do do some meditation, and I’d like to do a little more of it. I’ve been looking at ways to do it, but they all seem to be addressing it with tech. [laughs] Like some app on my phone or something. Maybe that's not the best way to do that.
Andy: [33:20] That's funny, I use the Headspace app, I started using it two days ago. You're right, I don't really want to plug in my headphones to my phone to do this. The whole point of this is to get away from that. Have you found anything that works for you?
Henry: [33:38] No, I use Calm on the phone. [laughs]
Andy: [33:40] It’s like a paradox, where we have to go to technology to try to silence our mind because of the technology. [laughs]
[33:51] Anyways, Henry, before I say good bye, what I want to do is, if people want to hear…because there are two sides to this. The first is if they want to learn more about Status Hero, let me know where they should go for that. Also, is there anywhere online where you share your bigger picture thoughts like this?
Henry: [34:11] Status Hero is statushero.com, all one word, everything's there, Twitter account @statushero. For me I haven't spent a lot of time broadcasting any of that stuff in any meaningful way. If I do it's usually through my Twitter account which is @hpoydar. I'll throw some stuff up on medium, here and there when I get around to it.
Andy: [34:38] Perfect, I'll make sure I get all that linked up. Henry I appreciate you for taking the time to come on this show and talk to us about focus, about your background, just about everything. I really enjoyed the talk.
Henry: [34:49] I enjoyed it as well, thanks a lot.