You see Alex, most people are basically bastards.

I took Yahoo’s “Leading Big” course over the last two days and I have to say I thought it was excellent. Over the years I’d covered most of the general management material in other courses or gleaned it from books – but each model they presented was new to me and gave me a new way to think about the challenges I face with my teams. One of the questions they asked was about what experiences you had in the past with your managers – both good and bad. In my case, three particular situations and pearls of wisdom sprang to mind.

1) “You see Alex, most people are basically bastards.”
This was Paul Sherwood, Managing Director of Teleca Limited in about 1996. We’d been for a meeting with Psion (before they became Symbian) in London as we were working on a browser (finally part of the psiMail Internet package) for their Series 3c PDA. It was a disheartening meeting and as a young, passionate intern I felt they had stabbed me in the heart. As we left the building to head back to the train Paul could clearly see my sinking depression and formulated a phrase that stuck with me: “You see Alex, most people are basically bastards.” My interpretation being that listening to a single bad review was not an indication that your work was junk.

Thanks Paul, it’s cheered me up on a number of occasions since then.


2) “I made all my money in bricks, it’s easy – you sell them for more than they cost to make.”
This was our Yorkshire-born 3i-appointed chairman at magic4 – I think his name was Andy Roberts. We’d been going for a year and were burning through VC cash at a ridiculous rate. He called a meeting with the exec team plus a few product managers, etc. and read the riot act. His pitch was that business was easy – we were currently spending more than we were invoicing and this was a bad thing. He didn’t understand or want to hear about any of that “technology bullshit” – just what we were doing to prevent us running out of cash in about 14 months. I don’t know if he was ultimately the right match – for sure the company was sold to Openwave 4 years later for $80m – but it always reminds me to take a step back from the code-face and look at the fundamentals. Is this really a business?

3) “Looks nice Alex, but it’s not a product.”
This was Simon Wilkinson, CEO of magic4 at the time. He called me into his office and asked me, as a Product Manager, to design a product. Excellent. I took a couple of weeks, thought through the basic pitch, made mocks, refined them, wrote up a nice document and a few slides. Back in his office and he’d read it through – it was a lovely looking pitch, he said, but not a product. Hmm. I went through my pitch and listed my benefits. His response – just a set of features, justified in hindsight. Ah. I explained the functionality. Not interesting was his response, as there was no real problem that my product was solving. Ok. I half justified the problem but didn’t have anything to back it up and that was the final nail in the coffin.
I paraphrase but his response was something along the lines of “A nice-looking but pointless concept which aims to solve to a half-baked, contrived problem that would cost a small fortune to develop, launch and support with no evidence of any customer willing to pay for it.”
In some parts of the world this may have flown. But for me, it has grounded my thinking when designing products going forward..

Good or bad managers? Depends on what you’re measuring, but the experiences stuck in my mind to this day.


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