Entrepreneur Business

Be a Maker

Republished - original from 2012

I spent the past two mornings shingling the roof of my in-laws’ new 2 car garage. This morning, I spent three hours on the roof alone while they were at church and they returned to find I had one side half done. My father-in-law is retired, but completely capable. He called me the day before, asking if I might have some time to help him shingle this weekend. I didn’t, but you make time when you need to.

I spent most of my youth swinging a hammer. I grew up on a small dairy farm, but we got out of milking when I was 13 or 14. After the dairy was gone, my father and I began doing construction when we weren’t working the fields. Over the years I’ve probably spent more time shingling than anything else in construction, doing nothing but roofing 6 days a week the first two months of my summer when I was 19. When I started a career in software, I found myself owning a licensed residential construction company as a side-business with my younger brother, but that is a story for another time. The long and the short of it is that I can throw down a square of shingles pretty damn fast.

While I was on the roof by myself this calm Sunday morning, banging away with my nail gun while most people were still sleeping (or trying to), I had time to reflect on the startup I’m leading. I also thought about how satisfying it was that I was able to shingle the garage on my own; how I knew each step of what I was doing, how the lines were coming out (unexpectedly) perfectly and how a nerd who would otherwise have no business being on a roof could hold his own with the guys that do it every day. We completed the roof in 10 hours and I put every nail in the roof with the exception of 4 rows that were started without me. I can’t remember the last time I shingled a roof, but I’m guessing it was about 5 years ago. Probably about the same time we shut down the construction company.

There is a great sense of pride that comes with doing a job yourself, even if your knees and back won’t let you forget you are rapidly approaching 40 and roofing isn’t as easy as it used to be. I’m very proud that I’m a builder, an inventor, a maker.

Paul Graham wrote an article back in July 2009 called Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. It outlined the very different way Makers and Managers work, and the importance of being cognizant of the Maker schedule.

This article by Mr. Graham is still one of my favorites and it underlines the fundamental difference between those that "do" the work and those that don’t. Don’t get me wrong. The world needs managers. I’ve had some wonderful managers in my career and have sat in the manager seat in companies big and small.

However the importance of the maker is often overlooked, as is the importance of being a maker. I have the pleasure of being a business advisor for a few young entrepreneurs who have recently graduated from college with business degrees. They are starting technology startups. They aren’t delivering IT products or services, but their businesses live and die by the proprietary applications their teams are building to provide the services they sell. Many startups are this way today. For example, I may have a business that sells blueprints for building birdhouses, but if the entire customer experience, design process, fulfillment process, and operational backbone of my business runs on a software system I built, I’m really running a technology company.

These young entrepreneurs are the same way, and for good or bad they have me as an advisor. One of the things I have instilled in them is they must understand the operational core of their business. In a technology business like theirs, that means understanding how to write code. At this point some of you may probably click away from this post and say, "WTF is this crap?"

I’m not trying to get them to write production level code. In fact I’m encouraging them not to try to get to that level, and learning to code is a task that is only intended to be a few hours of "down time" per week. But I’m asking them to build the knowledge of what really happens in their business, learn what it takes to get stuff done, speak the language, and live the pain. In effect, be a maker.

So far, it has been a rewarding experience for them, and they have even developed enough skill to make updates to the marketing website for their companies, a task that would likely be deemed low priority by the software developers (makers) building the application, but critical for the business person (manager) beating the streets for connections and customers. More importantly, consider the appreciation that is gained by the software developers. Developers can often be treated poorly in a startup, sometimes unappreciated by those that don’t understand what they do. Whether the lack of appreciate exists, or simply false perception, imagine how the "lowly" developer feels to see the CEO trying to be like them. It can be a very positive impact on team culture, both for how the leaders interact with the developers and how the developers are able (and willing) to communicate with the leaders.

I think many people underestimate the importance of having a manager who is also a maker at the helm. No doubt, the leader of a business needs to be a manager most of their time. It should be their #1 priority. This is the thing I focus on today. For the past year with our mobile gaming startup QONQR, I’ve been a maker first, and a manager second. Now that we have a product in the market, I must flip those roles. I can’t be the person charging into the code to implement new features. Priorities mandate that I act like the CEO, not a developer. I need to take that MBA I paid so much for and put it to good use. Raising funding and growing customers is my number one priority today, and I love it. But I sneak back into source control on the weekends and knock of bugs in our support log. I gain that same sense of pride and boost of energy as I do when dusting off that old Hitachi coiled roofing nailer and finding after I snap a chalk line on that 8th row of shingles that the lines are true and straight. It feels great to know I’m still good at being a maker.

So, what is the point to all of this? What I’m saying is: if you are a maker, don’t lose sight of the joy you can have by occasionally going back to making stuff long after you’ve left that role to be a manager. If you are a manager, take the time to understand what your makers do, and be a maker yourself, even if it is just to learn. Chances are you’ll enjoy it and your employees will appreciate you much more (and vice versa). Finally, if you are an entrepreneur, think about what kind of a leader you want to be. Understand as much of your business as you can. If possible, get in the trenches with your troops and learn their world if you aren’t already there. Your business will be healthier for it, and you just might enjoy the chaos of being a startup a little more.