Why I Work for Jason Calacanis (and Freakin’ Love It)

Posted: December 5th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: General | 6 Comments »

Mark Gayle published a blog post on Friday titled “I would never work for Jason Calacanis” which got a lot of buzz on Hacker News. The post references an interview with Jason in which he describes his managerial style and the kind of people he likes to hire. Mr. Gayle states that he would never want to work for Jason and then goes on to explain why. As someone who is currently working for Jason, I thought the article was misinformed and really kind of silly. However, I don’t believe that Mr. Gayle’s post really warrants a direct response for the following two reasons.

1. The post is his own personal opinion. He is entitled to that, even if it is based on partial or incorrect facts. If he doesn’t want to work for Jason after listening to that interview then I’m guessing he wouldn’t do very well at one of Jason’s companies, and so it’s better for everyone that he doesn’t.

2. The last thing I’m going to do is get in the middle of the HN “Jayter” wars. However, I will say that I have yet to meet a person who can honestly say that they regret having worked for Jason. Even the people that have had personal problems with him have also had their careers massively jump started while working for him.

Rather than responding directly to Mr. Gayle and ripping on his blog post, I would just like to share a few brief thoughts that I have had lately which are related to some of what Mr. Gayle addresses in his post.

So here is my big huge hairy thought: Great performance and great success is (almost) always preceded by tremendous passion, massive commitment, and large sacrifice.

Simply put, in order to achieve greater than average results, you have to give greater than average effort. Duh! This is a dead simple principle that I believe everyone in the Hacker News community can agree with. However, there seems to be a continual tug of war on Hacker News over how much commitment (or imbalance)  should be encouraged in the start-up community. Personally, I think that it is ridiculous to tell another individual what the “right” amount of commitment, sacrifice or balance is in his/her own life. However, I do think this tug of war makes sense when it comes to building company culture. Every CEO has to figure out what level of commitment (or lack of balance) they should expect from their employees. That decision and its practical application can have a massive impact on the overall culture of the company. This “degree of expected sacrifice” is something that is brought into the company culture both deliberately and accidentally. It can be explicitly communicated as well as modeled by senior leadership at the company. Ideally, the “degree of expected sacrifice” is clearly communicated throughout the hiring process so that incoming employees know what they are in for.

So the big question that seems to keep coming up within the start-up community is: What is the best “degree of expected sacrifice” for a start-up? Sometimes the question is phrased: If you only have (small number here) degrees of sacrifice can you still be successful? I also see the reoccurring post: Start-up founder (founder name here) is a terrible person because he requires (really really high number) degrees of expected sacrifice at his company and all of the young start up founders are going to think they have to do the same.

Here is my opinion on the matter, which I believe is really quite revolutionary, and is going to make waves in the start up community. You ready for it??

Let every CEO decide how he wants to run his company, and let the free market decide who the winners and losers are. Ok, so that’s not so revolutionary is it?

You say, “But what about the poor employees that get stuck working at a company where they are never allowed to leave the building, they don’t have time to develop meaningful relationships, and they burn out never wanting to work at a start up again?”

You ready for revolutionary idea number two??

Let prospective start up employees evaluate their own degree of willingness to sacrifice, weigh it against their desire to be at a winning company, and then DECIDE which companies they want to work for. There is this thing called the internet in which you can research the cultures of companies before you apply to work for them. I’m really a visionary, aren’t I?

A recent blog post by Matt Douglas criticized Seth Priebatsch, the CEO of SCVNGR, for not having enough balance in his life. While I personally agree with a lot of Mr. Douglas’ values, I disagree with his criticism of Seth. If Seth wants to run his company at 200 mph, more power to him. Personally, I would probably never want to work for Seth because I think I would burn out. Time will tell if Seth burns out. Personally, I doubt that he will. It is very clear that he gets energized and fulfilled by putting everything he has into his company. Seth will miss out on a lot of what life has to offer, and he is also likely to burn out many of his employees (who are unfortunately also his friends). I think that Seth recognizes both of those possibilities and accepts them because his goal is to be “the worlds greatest.” Olympic athletes have been living this ultimate level of sacrifice for decades in order to achieve the title of “the worlds greatest.” Some of them burn out. Some of them fail. Some of them quit. Some of them become the worlds greatest because they were willing to sacrifice more than anyone else. Whether in athletics or tech, those that have achieved the status of “the worlds greatest” have been those that have wanted it the most and have sacrificed the most for it. History makes this pretty clear.

The flip side of that coin is that you can “win” in a start-up without delivering an Olympic level performance. Some winners in the start-up space win by coming up with a sport no one else is playing. Some win by looking for a sport only one or two other people are playing and sacrificing just enough to be better than those other two. Some win by accident because the rules of the game suddenly change making them the winner. Ok, so the analogy isn’t perfect but the point is that there are WAY more winners in start-ups than in the Olympics. Being “the worlds greatest” in a given start-up space may not always require Olympic level sacrifice. I think this is huge reason that so many people are attracted to start-ups. An ordinary person can have massive success under the right circumstances. Seth Priebatsch is someone who is building his start-up like he is training for the Olympics. He isn’t just trying to win on a personal or financial level. Seth wants to win on the international stage of technology by building something that will impact billions of people.

This brings me back to the title of this post, “Why I work for Jason Calacanis (and Freakin’ Love It).” Jason is someone who also wants to win at the Olympic level. He has tasted the sweetness of victory, and he wants it again, only bigger this time. Jason realizes that building Olympic level success requires massive sacrifice and focus, but he also realizes there is more to it than that. Building a team of talented, motivated, focused and committed engineers and product visionaries is a huge challenge in today’s competitive environment. This is exactly why Jason has very deliberately made Mahalo an amazing place for engineers to work.

In Mr. Gayles blog he stated, “I am yet to hear of anyone ‘brag’ that they work at Mahalo.” Well Mr. Gayles, I’m here to brag that I work at Mahalo, and I freakin’ love it!

Here are just a few of the reasons why:

  • As a junior engineer I have direct input and say in the product. Jason is very good about asking all of us for input, and he listens to what we have to say.
  • Mahalo is the ultimate place to work if you value your health. Here are a couple of articles that detail a few of the reasons why this is the case:

  • The team at Mahalo is fantastic! The people I work with are smart, talented, committed, driven and passionate.
  • We work REALLY hard AND we play REALLY hard. We take afternoons off to play at the beach, play ultimate Frisbee in the park, go to the movies as a company, have Starcraft 2 nights, etc…
  • We are building a product that I believe in. Mahalo has had several pivots during it’s 3 years. While I can’t say I have personally loved every iteration of the product, I can say that I am sincerely excited about and proud of the products we will be shipping during the next 12 months.
  • Despite popular mythology, all of us do actually have lives outside of work. We all have deep and meaningful relationships in the real world. For example, I am happily married. While my wife isn’t always a fan of the weeks I put in “Olympic level” hours at Mahalo, she loves that I am doing what I am passionate about. I think she would also tell you that I’m completely able to give everything that is expected of me at Mahalo AND be a good husband that consistently spends quality time with her.

Working at Mahalo is absolutely not for everyone. There have been several people that have not been able to handle either Jason’s intensity or Mahalo’s “degree of expected sacrifice.” Those people do not survive at Mahalo. Unfortunately, some of those situations have ended in an ugly fashion.

I’m certain that any of the 19 engineers I work with at Mahalo would also love to stand up and brag about their job at Mahalo. The reason that you don’t hear much from us is because we are engineers. We would rather keep our heads down and enjoy our jobs by building awesome product than brag about how fun it is.

I would like to leave you with these charges.

Founders:

You have the freedom to build your company however the heck you want. Think about what level of success you want to achieve, what level of sacrifice you can afford to give in your own life, and what kind of people you want to surround yourself with. If you are the Seth Priebatsch type, I can’t wait to see what amazing things you build. Just be sure that people know what they are in for before you bring them into the company, or you might have some ugly breakups.

Engineers:

You have the freedom to work at whatever company you want. Think about what level of success you want to achieve, what level of sacrifice you can afford to give in your own life, and what kind of people you want to surround yourself with. Do your research and find the companies and founders that have a culture that will fit you.

Ultimately, my charge to everyone in the start-up community is to be passionate about what is most important to you. Be careful to balance (or imbalance) your life in a way that reflects these passions or else you will miss out on some of joy life has to offer you.

That’s all I have to say for now. Now back to spending quality time with my wife and building a killer product at Mahalo.

Thanks for reading,

Travis Fischer

Email me: trav.fischer@gmail.com

Follow me on Twiiter: @travisfischer


6 Comments on “Why I Work for Jason Calacanis (and Freakin’ Love It)”

  1. 1 Jerry h. said at 4:36 pm on December 5th, 2010:

    Nice post. It doesn’t seem like Jason wants to win at an Olympic level, though. He seems bored and unfocused, unable to complete one thing before starting another. I’d be pretty annoyed I was an investor in mahalo. Do all mahalo employees have the freedom to start 2 or 3 new startups and keep their salary or just Jason? Are you allowed to start something new? My point is that Jason seems to have adopted one standard for his employees and another for himself. You guys stay here and work 80 hours a week on mahalo, I’m going to go dick around with my 5 side projects. That’s the only reason I’d never work for Jason, the double standard.

  2. 2 Jeff said at 5:04 pm on December 5th, 2010:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this.

    I disagree with those who think Jason would be terrible to work for. In fact I feel the opposite. I think they must be lacking information or they just don’t really understand what the real goal is.

    Glad to hear your’re happy

  3. 3 Jason Calacanis said at 8:24 pm on December 5th, 2010:

    Thanks for an amazing post Travis! Very heartfelt and logical.

    Jerry: I spend 80+ hours a week on Mahalo and probably 10 hours a week on other projects. I have a great team running Open Angel Forum and there is a CEO of ThisWeekIn.com (I just put in 3 hours doing my two shows each week).

    The good news is that ThisWeekIn.com, OAF and my newsletter are the #1 referrer of hires at Mahalo.

    All the investors in Mahalo are very cool with my efforts outside of the building.

  4. 4 scott edward walker said at 9:48 pm on December 5th, 2010:

    Hey Jerry, what’s the story? Listen to me: every entrepreneur and Maholo employee (and even you Jerry) can learn a lot from Jason. In short, he is a marketing genius. Why don’t you stop being a hater and be a student; it’s a lot more constructive.

  5. 5 Tom Hart said at 9:50 pm on December 5th, 2010:

    go jcal, trav, and all the other mahalo-ers go!

  6. 6 Richard Ford said at 12:05 am on December 6th, 2010:

    In my China startup for the past 6 years. I never stopped. I worked 80 hour weeks. We did it organically as it is not as easy to get funding here (as WFOE) as it is in the USA (you guys have it easy).

    “Nothing comes of nothing”.


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