Lesson #30: Thinking like an entrepreneur
Hello and thanks in advance for reading Lessons in Engineering Leadership! If you’re new here, Lessons in Engineering Leadership is a weekly newsletter covering a variety of engineering leadership topics that can be read in under 5 minutes.
If you find value in these newsletters and would like to support this publication, you can become a paid subscriber.
I’m glad you’re here!
My Maven course on Engineering Leadership has launched! You can learn more and sign up here. The first cohort kicks off on February 20.
I’m raising $5,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital while training for my first marathon (2024 Bank of America Chicago Marathon in October). Support my fundraiser here.
Thinking like an entrepreneur
Before joining Spot AI nearly two years ago I was a full-time entrepreneur. I sold my first freelance project at 14, went full-time on my own in 2015, and continue to freelance on the side today. Entrepreneurial experience is a secret superpower as a leader, and here’s why: Thinking like an entrepreneur comes down to thinking about the business as a whole and not focusing solely on the tactical details that contribute towards a goal.
This means you have a solid understanding and balance of customer needs and how your team contributes solutions to meet those needs. You don’t get too into the weeds on one particular customer’s request. This is one of the biggest areas I see new engineers and engineering leaders falter—don’t become a service business when you’re a product business. Instead, entrepreneurs develop the ability to look at a problem more holistically/broadly than the exact request, and developing this task helps engineers build systems rather than one-time solutions. They keep asking “why” until they get to a broader problem statement that can apply to several customers.
I’ll give you an example of how this played out in my own work. Integrations are commonplace for security companies; you want to connect (as some examples) your access control system, sensors, or POS transactions with camera footage to get a holistic view of your systems. At the outset, we built out some of these integrations in-house as we explored opening our platform to third party systems.
Account exec came to me and asked if we’re going to build an integration with X access control system. The same day a different account exec asks me about Y system integration. The following week Z integration came up. As you can probably imagine, I don’t have the resources available to build each of these individual integrations, as it’s an N+1 problem. Instead of looking at each integration as an individual goal, I took a step back and asked how we can build all of these integrations without having to actually build each and every one of them.
The problem statement changes. It’s no longer “how can I build integrations X, Y, and Z?”—instead, we’re asking “how can I build a system to support building integrations X, Y, and Z, but also A, B, and C as well?” And that’s how Spot Connect was born. We ultimately built a feature that allows developers to build a custom integration to connect third party data sources with your camera footage.
Not only are we providing a way to solve customer pain points, but we’re proactively providing anyone the opportunity to build any integration they may dream of that we don’t currently know about. You can track a package through a facility by scanning a barcode. You can integrate with one of the thousand+ point of sale systems that exist and choose which data points are most important to you. You can solve the business problem of identifying costly productivity gaps, being notified of deviations from a normal transaction (e.g. scanning a steak as bananas), or ensuring your facility is properly set up for efficiency and safety. You can address all of these through building a system vs. tackling each individual problem head-on. And as an added bonus, your engineering team can focus on core business problems instead of chasing down every individual request.
Engineering leaders who think like entrepreneurs will greatly improve their team’s efficiency by thinking two steps ahead of the problem at hand. They understand the business needs and can craft a solution that meets the needs of a broader audience to deliver a high-quality product as fast as possible. This requires practice as we’re wired to problem-solve, but with intentionality, you’d be surprised how efficient your team can move when you’re solving the correct problems and getting out of the weeds.
What I’m reading
I obviously just read House of Flame and Shadow by Sarah J. Maas (Crescent City 3). I’ll get back to reading business books shortly.
Check out the full book list for recommendations and an ever-growing reading list.
Note: Links to books in this section are affiliate links to help support the purchase of the rest of my books :)
What I’m working on
Now that we’re officially in FY25Q1 (going to be a great year!) I’m putting finishing touches to my team’s OKRs and then moving onto the IT vision and Q1 OKRs. We’re also in our 2023 SOC2 Type II audit review period so that’s of course all-consuming. Deep breaths.
If this email was forwarded to you, be sure to subscribe to receive weekly emails in your inbox that can be read in under 5 minutes!