‘Startups are human’: Lessons I learned from Phil Morle and my eternal gratitude
I have only written one fan letter in my life. It was not to Justin Timberlake or Hillary Clinton. It was to my IB World History teacher Mr William Cotner. It was a four-page letter written with a Bic pen and thanking him for opening up my eyes to the world and allowing me to pour my curiosity into world events. It has taken me almost 20 years to write my next fan letter – this time to one Mr Phil Morle of Liverpool who reminds me of Mr Cotner in more ways than one. Phil and I were on the phone last week and a colleague overheard me call him “Sir” a few times. She asked me why I did that. I responded, “That’s what I was always taught to call teachers.”
Along with being a champion and catalyst of the Australian innovation ecosystem through Pollenizer, Phil Morle has been a great teacher to us all. More than the technical learnings around lean tools and the testing methodologies, Phil has taught me that startups are, above anything else, human and therefore have a beating heart that should be enable and empowered. These lessons I learned from Phil Morle live with me every day.
Done is better than perfect
Before I got bitten by the startup bug, I worked in advertising – the land of perfection. Not only did you have to walk around looking like you just stepped out of a Vogue spread, every piece of work you did had to be proofread a hundred times, checked by four different departments, approved by your regional office, and finally rolled out as part of a broader detailed scope that spanned several months.
Needless to say, it was a suffocating environment for someone like me. It did leave a lesson that was hard to knock out of me: work needs to be perfect in order to be valuable. This lesson was the hardest for me to unlearn and the most valuable teaching under Phil’s wing.
The biggest myth about lean is that “lean” means “cheap.” The reality is that “lean” means “fast.” The currency for startups is not money. Our currency is speed. If you wait to action anything until it’s perfect, you will never make it to market.
I spent the first few weeks at Pollenizer getting questions like: “Where is that thing we talked about, CBL?” and “When do you think it will be ready, CBL?” and my answer was always “I’m working on it.” The truth was that I was “planning”, which to me meant researching and drafting but also just arming myself with courage to actually get it done. All the while, valuable learning time was being wasted.
Phil made it clear time and time again that he preferred something done than perfect. In the startup world, there was no time to waste chasing comfort, let alone perfection. In fact, if you waited long enough for him to have to ask you about a deliverable, you were in the doghouse! And even though Phil never raises his voice or says anything outwardly disparaging, you can tell by the pauses he takes between sentences that it’s time for you to pick up that ball you just dropped. And fast.
It took a few rodeos for it to stick but I now live by the mantra: “JFDI”– and I have never looked back.
Let me know what you need
The past two years have been ripe with lessons about micro-managing founders. I have a great admiration for people who start things, mainly because it’s brave, but also because if it weren’t for founders, we’d all be out of a job!
However, I was lucky enough to work with a founder like Phil early on who taught me that the work is not about what the founder wants, what the vision is or what the founder has “approved”. It’s about what you learn from the market and what your team can deliver.
The founder’s vision is meant to be a springboard for action, not a cage for creativity and flow. Whenever he would hand me a project, whether it was a simple data analysis on the team’s time or the development of the Pollenizer Academy, he would always end what would be a brief conversation with “we’ll meet again in a few days and you can let me know what you need.” That has been the most empowering 16 words I have ever heard.
Phil never poured over briefs or lectured me over a whiteboard with exhaustive prescription on “vision”; he was always sure to let you know that this project was yours to start and his to enable. He had chosen you for that task for a reason. Phil, more than anything, has taught me that true leadership means making sure you have the right people in your team and then getting the hell out of their way.
You guys did good
The toughest day of my career happened at Pollenizer about three and a half years ago. A round of redundancies had been decided and things happened pretty quickly, as it tends to happen in an environment like that. It came as a surprise, certainly to me, but also as a particular blow as we had what I consider to be the best team in startup at the time. We were a close knit group of rebels and misfits, assembled by Phil and Mick to change the world, one startup at a time. My main role at Pollenizer had been to keep the team unified, moving forward and happy. Having to spend the day taking it apart, and in secret, broke my heart.
That day was awful: running around reading through contracts, putting together documents and letters, checking newly-minted legislation, all while trying to look like everything was normal, was truly heart-wrenching.
Redundancies happen every day, I know that. I had gone through them before, but this one felt different. To me, I was taking my little work family apart. The only saving grace was the calm resolve of Claire Hallam, Pollenizer COO at the time. She and I kept taking deep breathes together and sharing comforting smiles. That was the longest day of my career. But we got everything together, made the announcements, took everyone through the process, and it was done.
At the end of the day, Phil, Clare and I walked out of the office together, with heavy heads and hearts. It was a sombre walk for a few minutes. Then Phil turned to Claire and I, gave us the best smile he could manage and said, “Thank you so much for being there today. Both of you had a tough day but you guys did good.”
I felt a small wave of a smile wipe across my face and nodded. We walked in silence for the rest of the two blocks. They both crossed the street to the train station and I hailed a cab. I could feel tears rolling down my cheeks. We had done the best we could under the circumstances. But Phil understood that recognition is not only important during wins, but it is particularly important during trying times.
Phil’s words assured me that he knew how tough it had been and he appreciated both our work and our hearts that day. We had battled the dragon together and that was all that mattered.
From little things … (big things grow)
Whenever Phil had an assignment for me, he would say “I have a project I think you might enjoy”. These nine words might as well be “Open Sesame”. I now know what he was really saying was “I am about to hand you more than you can chew, but I’m confident that you’ll figure out how to chew it”. With these words he introduced the Pollenizer Academy, the Talent Pool campaign, countless hackathons, 2Days2Release, a corporate innovation partnership, and countless other schemes that seemed overwhelming at first.
Now that I have a team of my own, I understand the power of those words. By saying “I have a project” instead of “This is what I’d like you to do”, Phil was giving you ownership of both the process and the outcome. This was very intimidating at first but it got easier. The secret was to start from “a little thing”: a first step, an MVP, one test. That is all it took to unleash something wonderful into the world.
In many ways, i often feel like the “little thing” on its way to growing into a “big thing”. And that is the biggest gift of all, knowing that my career will never be fully cooked and that there is always more to learn, more to do. I was lucky enough to say those nine words back to Phil a few months ago, when introducing him to the SWITCH Festival. I wrote an email with the subject header: “I have a project I think you might enjoy” and hit Send.
I knew that this was cause close to his heart and a professional dream we both shared: an inclusive event where corporates, startups, and everyone in between could come together and learn from each other. And even though SWITCH is not exactly what our initial vision had been, he very generously agreed to be a patron.
SWITCH was conceived as a three-day event for open corporate innovation, which includes a day of deep innovation training and a two-day hackathon. But the way I see it is as a ripe playground for unlikely alliances to germinate, much like the one between Phil and I. Who knew that a former theatre director from Liverpool and a tiny Peruvian lady would meet and go forth to create wonderful things? I do hope you can join us at SWTICH on August 27th – it would be a good start to learn from Phil as he’s one of the headliners! (There is a special discount ticket price for entrepreneurs). Also, all proceeds for SWITCH go to the Cure Brain Cancer Foundation, a cause close to both our hearts.
We all have a Phil Morle in our lives: someone who has no idea how much they have touched our hearts and fed our minds. I often tell Phil that half my brain belongs to him and that is no exaggeration. What he doesn’t know is that it’s the half of my brain that sees people as a whole person – full of their individual motivations, drivers, curiosities and aspirations. We should never forget to treat each other as whole people rather than a set of skills.
I will never be able to thank Phil Morle enough for teaching me that lesson over and over again. I know there are many leaders out there who lead with their hearts first and their heads second. I hope this piece brings them out so we can celebrate them. The startup ecosystem and all of our minds will be better for it! Who is your Phil?