Posts from Stack Exchange Network

Fun Friday: Outing Bad Patents

We've all had that reaction when seeing that a certain patent was issued – "how the hell did they get a patent on that?". Well now we can have fun outing those ridiculous patent applications before they get issued.

Yesterday our portfolio company Stack Exchange launched a new Stack powered community called Ask Patents. Here's how Stack CEO Joel Spolsky describes it:

Ask Patents is a new Stack Exchange site launching today that allows anyone to participate in the patent examination process. It’s a collaborative effort, supported by Stack Exchange, the US Patent and Trademark Office, and the Google Patent Search team. It’s very exciting, because it is opening up a process that has been conducted behind closed doors for over 200 years.

I don't really need to discuss how badly our patent process is broken to here. We've discussed it ad naseum.

What we can and should discuss is how an open collaborative crowd based approach to patent examination can improve the process. I am hopeful that it will. And I am thrilled that the USPTO opted to partner with Stack Exchange to run this process. Stack's sites, rules, and processes take a bit of getting used to. They are geeky for sure. But they produce very high quality collaborative debates on questions with definitive answers that the community resolves and the quality of the results they get from this process is extremely high.

This is not like asking the Yahoo Answers community to do patent examination. That would be laughable. This is a much more serious effort, based on "prior art". Joel explains:

Ask Patents is a collaborative effort, neatly tagged by keywords and classification, and searchable by patent application number. It is inspired by a research project called Peer To Patent, run out of New York Law School. That pilot project, created by Professor Beth Noveck, proved very successful at identifying prior art that the USPTO wouldn’t otherwise have known about.

So instead of our regular fun friday routine, I'm asking everyone to go spend a few minutes on Ask Patents and see if you might enjoy becoming a part time patent examiner yourself. I am headed there now.


The Management Team - Guest Post From Joel Spolsky

Today's guest blogger needs no introduction. Joel Spolsky one of the best bloggers out there. He also runs one of our portfolio companies, Stack. And his approach to management is unorthodox at times but amazingly effective. I asked him to tell us a little about how he does it. I think you'll enjoy this post, it's great advice on many levels, and its is also full of chuckles. I told you he's a great blogger.


Very few company founders start out with management experience, so they tend to make it up as they go along. Sometimes they try to reinvent management from first principles. More often than not, they manage their startups the way that they’ve seen management work on TV and in movies. I’ll bet more entrepreneurs model their behavior on Captain Picard from Star Trek than any nonfiction human.

Most TV management is of the “command and control” variety. The CEO makes a decision, and tells his lieutenants. They convey this important decision to the teams, who execute on the CEO’s decision. It’s top-down management. All authority and power and decisions flow from the top. How could it work any other way?

This system probably works very well when you are trying to organize a team of manual laborers with interchangeable skills to sweep up the ticker tape in the street after the Giants parade BECAUSE THE GIANTS WON THE SUPER BOWL IF YOU DID NOT NOTICE.

Command and Control probably worked great in the toothpaste factory where Charlie Bucket’s father screwed the little caps on tubes.

This system is also pretty obvious, so it’s what 90% of startup founders try first.

Seductively, it even works OK for a three person company.

This is dangerous because you don’t notice that it’s not going to scale. And when the company grows from 3 to 30, top-down management doesn’t work, because it doesn’t take advantage of everyone’s brains in the organization.

Turns out, it’s positively de-motivating to work for a company where your job is just to shut up and take orders. In tech startup land, we all understand instinctively that we have to hire super smart people, but we forget that we then have to organize the workforce so that those people can use their brains 24/7.

Thus, the upside-down pyramid. Stop thinking of the management team at the top of the organization. Start thinking of the software developers, the designers, the product managers, and the front line sales people as the top of the organization.

Joel mgmt

The “management team” isn’t the “decision making” team. It’s a support function. You may want to call them administration instead of management, which will keep them from getting too big for their britches.

Administrators aren’t supposed to make the hard decisions. They don’t know enough. All those super genius computer scientists that you had to recruit from MIT at great expense are supposed to make the hard decisions. That’s why you’re paying them. Administrators exist to move the furniture around so that the people at the top of the tree can make the hard decisions.

When two engineers get into an argument about whether to use one big Flash SSD drive or several small SSD drives, do you really think the CEO is going to know better than the two line engineers, who have just spent three days arguing and researching and testing?

Think about how a university department organizes itself. There are professors at various ranks, who pretty much just do whatever the heck they want. Then there’s a department chairperson who, more often than not, got suckered into the role. The chairperson of the department might call meetings and adjudicate who teaches what class, but she certainly doesn’t tell the other professors what research to do, or when to hold office hours, or what to write or think.

That’s the way it has to work in a knowledge organization. You don’t build a startup with one big gigantic brain on the top, and a bunch of lesser brains obeying orders down below. You try to get everyone to have a gigantic brain in their area, and you provide a minimum amount of administrative support to keep them humming along.

This is my view of management as administration—as a service corps that helps the talented individuals that build and sell products do their jobs better. Attempting to see management as the ultimate decision makers demotivates the smart people in the organization who, without the authority to do what they know is right, will grow frustrated and leave. And if this happens, you won’t notice it, but you’ll be left with a bunch of yes-men, who don’t particularly care (or know) how things should work, and the company will only have one brain – the CEO’s. See what I mean about “it doesn’t scale?”

And yes, you’re right, Steve Jobs didn’t manage this way. He was a dictatorial, autocratic asshole who ruled by fiat and fear. Maybe he made great products this way. But you? You are not Steve Jobs. You are not better at design than everyone in your company. You are not better at programming than every engineer in your company. You are not better at sales than every salesperson in the company.

It is not, as it turns out, necessary to be a micromanaging psychopath with narcissistic personality disorder (or even to pretend to be one) if you just hire smart people and give them real authority. The saddest thing about the Steve Jobs hagiography is all the young “incubator twerps” strutting around Mountain View deliberately cultivating their worst personality traits because they imagine that’s what made Steve Jobs a design genius. Cum hoc ergo propter hoc, young twerp. Maybe try wearing a black turtleneck too.

For every Steve Jobs, there are a thousand leaders who learned to hire smart people and let them build great things in a nurturing environment of empowerment and it was AWESOME. That doesn’t mean lowering your standards. It doesn’t mean letting people do bad work. It means hiring smart people who get things done—and then getting the hell out of the way.

#MBA Mondays

Modern Community Building

In late May, Joel Spolsky, co-founder/CEO of our portfolio company Stack Exchange, wrote a great post called Modern Community Building.

Stack (as I like to call the company) is building out a large network of highly engaged communities (57 as of right now) all focused on knowledge sharing.

Joel described the basic problem:

There are an awful lot of technology companies, founded by programmers, who think they are building communities on the Internet, but they’re really just building software and wondering why the community doesn’t magically show up.

Joel points out an important truth. Online communities require both software and people. Sometimes the software part is the easier part. Curating communities is hard work and requires people to do it. It is an inherently social behavior. Joel describes the role of the "online community organizer":

This job will be sort of like being a community organizer at a non-profit. It combines elements of marketing, PR, and sales, but it’s really something different. I don’t expect that there are a lot of people out there who already kn0w how to do this well, so I’m going to train them, personally. Not that I know how to do this, but we’ll learn together. Every workday is going to start with a huddle at 9am and a plan for the day’s activities and an intensive six hours of work. Every workday is going to end with an hour of learning… reading Kawasaki and Godin and Ries and Trout, talking with invited experts, meeting with members of the community about what worked and what didn’t worked. Everyone who joins the program (and survives for a year) will come out with an almost supernatural ability to take a dead, lifeless site on the internet and make it into the hottest bar in town. That’s a skill worth learning for the 21st century.

Many of our companies need both community managers and community organizers. And I agree with Joel that this is a new job type that not many people have a ton of experience in. But as Joel says, those who develop these skills will be in high demand in the coming years.

If you are interested in joining Stack's community evangelist team, you can apply here. If you'd like to see all the open community manager positions in our portfolio, and there are a bunch of them all around the world, you can see them here.

Modern community building isn't easy but if there is one thing the Internet has taught me over the past 15 years, large engaged communities are incredible powerful things, both commercially and socially. Building them is important and ultimately very valuable work.