What I Learned at Summify Before Twitter Swooped Down and Snatched-Up My Team

In June 2011, I began a whirlwind tour of working in a tech startup. I joined a stellar team lead by Cristian Strat and Mircea Pasoi, who had both interned at Google and turned down some cozy job offerings at both Google and Facebook to launch their next project – a beautiful daily summary of the most relevant news from your social networks, called Summify.

In a community building adventure that lasted just seven months, I joined five software engineers on a ride that went from iPhone app launch to Twitter exit. These are some the stand-out lessons I’ve taken away:

Here’s your email – goodluck! How to filter 100,000s of automated incoming messages in Gmail

Perhaps this was a great intro, or even considered training, for why a news aggregation and filtering product like Summify is necessary. I was literally getting 100s of unfiltered messages into my inbox everyday, mostly from automated systems that the software engineers were using. I kept the 10% of messages that were meant for me and re-routed the rest using Gmail filters – aka God/Allah/Buddha. As Frank Costanza put it: SERENITY NOW!

In life it’s really useful to learn to figure out things on your own – a process known as Google-ing. The day after they hired me, Mircea and Cristian hopped on a flight down to Silicon Valley. I couldn’t just stand there; I had to bust a move – even though I didn’t really know what that move was. It was a slow and slightly rocky start, but once they returned we went over expectations and smoothed things out.

Team work, remote work, communication

It all starts by explicitly covering expectations – your team has to be on the same page, so everyone can act accordingly. And that goes both ways, and across all levels.

Whenever one of us found a valuable blog post we’d share it with the team. One day I got a fantastic post on communication guidelines in my inbox, and we immediately implemented it as our foundation. Here they are, as I remember them:

  • if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, or don’t understand something, ask.
  • if you’re not able to complete your task by the deadline, for whatever reason, tell the team now, not later, and adjust as necessary.
  • if you need help, get some.
  • the task isn’t done until you say it’s done.

A final touch of my own: nobody can read your mind or your heart, so speak your mind and tell people how you feel.

Use these simple rules as a framework for communicating and your team will be in good health.

Chill out, it’s just chaos

Calm down. Control the things you can, and let go of what you can’t. Stress solves nothing, and it’s rather excellent at creating more problems. Last time I checked, chaos included enough problems, so do give yourself a little break here.

Cristian and Mircea were some of the most relaxed guys I’ve met. Perhaps it’s because they’re engineers – who I’ve been told tend to have low energy – but I’d argue that 90% of people would not be as composed as these two, albeit, like ducks, they were paddling under the surface like maniacs.

Here’s a short-list of what they’d go through regularly: investor meetings, consistent pressure to hit targets, product advancements, the possibility of being kicked out of the country due to sub-sub-par visa laws for immigrant entrepreneurs, systems breaking in the middle of the night – appearing fixed – then breaking again, cash flow, and a potential acquisition by Twitter, which succeeded. I’m sure they’d be happy to give you a more extensive list.

Bottom line: stop whining and make shit happen. If you want to make a dent in the world, it’s not going to be easy. Nike says it best.

Sometimes it’s cheaper to act and iterate, than to try to get it all right in one go

Actually, it’s probably true all the time. Action is not only key in the consumer internet startup world, but really important in life. Analysis paralysis will kill your business, and make your life suck on more than one level – it stresses you out. Pulling the trigger on an idea, shipping a product or clicking publish is the best feeling in the world.

Decision is powerful. It sends your momentum in a direction and gives you an outcome from which you can make your next decision. You don’t have to jump off a cliff, but you do have to try something.

Nobody really knows anything – there are way too many variables – and that’s why you have to set something in motion. Try it, track it, fix it. Now you know if it does or doesn’t work and you can move on – next.

Being exposed to this bias toward action has been so valuable. I’m doing my best to apply it in my own life and I look forward to the results. Looking back, I wish i had the courage to experiment more while building Summify’s community. The other plus side to action is that it only leaves the possibility to regret things you’ve done, not those you haven’t, eliminating the soul-sucking feeling: “what if…?”

I think if we all spent a little more time during each day to reflect on what we’ve learned we’d have a greater grasp and perspective on our lives.

What are the greatest lessons you’ve learned from your latest adventure?

P.S. Follow the Summify boys as they cook-up something great with the Twitter Growth team:
@mirceap, @cgst, @mkychua, @nimalan, @prostul

12 comments
Doug Brown
Doug Brown

Lots of great learning and advice in this post Robin. I especially appreciate the duck analogy. It takes a lot of focus and practice to keep your feet paddling furiously under the surface whilst maintaining a calm above-the-water demeanor. But if you can't do it, you're going to panic your team and turn them from ducks into chickens. The ones without heads. Good luck on the next upwards swing of your growth curve.

bwertz
bwertz

Great post, Robin - would love to catch up! Ping me on Twitter?

valenciocardoso
valenciocardoso

Wow Robin, every one of your points hits close to home. Thanks for sharing, you guys a a great inspiration to us all. Best of luck with the next steps.

cgst
cgst

Hey Robin! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I'm glad to hear you enjoyed the Summify experience!

We're very grateful to have had the opportunity of working with you! The last 7 or 8 months have been really crazy and the learning went both ways. You gave our users a voice and helped us see behind the username handles, see the actual people and the community with its wants and needs.

ben
ben moderator

Great advice! Are you enjoying Twitter more or less than the Summify days?

robincampbell
robincampbell moderator

@Doug Brown You're so right. I'm glad Cristian and Mircea didn't experiment with chopping our heads off, although it may have added to the pirate image. Duck paddling = leadership 101.

robincampbell
robincampbell moderator

@valenciocardoso Wow, thanks Valencio. That's great to hear. Working at Summify was like being in a learning accelerator - such a great environment and supportive team. Good luck with your projects!

robincampbell
robincampbell moderator

@cgst Right on man, it was a great time with you guys - thanks! Hope the Twoffice is treating you all well and I'm really looking forward to coming down to the bay for a little visit. Let's see what you can cook up next!

robincampbell
robincampbell moderator

@ben Hey nice of you to stop by Ben and thanks. I actually didn't join the team for the move down to SF. Twitter wanted our engineers for their growth team, but wasn't in need of my non-programmer-ness. On to the next adventure for me. I have a couple ideas :)

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  2. [...] Robin Campbell gives us his take on his tenure at the startup, Summify, now acquired by Twitter. Calm down. Control the things you can, and let go of what you can’t. Stress solves nothing, and it’s rather excellent at creating more problems. Last time I checked, chaos included enough problems, so do give yourself a little break here. This entry was posted in development, Silicon Valley, startups and tagged entrepreneurship by aavaz. Bookmark the permalink. [...]

  3. [...] Update: What I Learned At Summify Before Twitter Swooped Down and Snatched Up My Team. [...]

  4. [...] in my young life: competing as an athlete, turning a page of notes into a dance organization, helping five software engineers build a social media company which was acquired by Twitter, living in Singapore and traveling through 17 countries – many of which have an entirely [...]

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