Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Mistakes I've made, and what you might be able to learn from them.

I’ve been running my own companies since 1986. That’s 24 years now, with some brief stints of employment if a contract was so time consuming that the dutch regulators took it as being equivalent to employment (they do that here to stop employers that try to avoid paying in to social security by hiring all their employees as free-lancers). At the high point of running ‘TrueTech’ we had about 20 full timers and partners, and a bunch of free-lancers.

It’s been a long, very interesting and at times very stressful ride so far, and I wished I could say I never made any mistakes.

But I have. Plenty of them, and most of them seem to be related to personality traits, I’ve tried to outline those below.

Some of the mistakes were almost without consequences, some of them with grave consequences. Here are the ‘highlights’, hopefully they’ll save some of the readers of this from repeating them.

1) I’m fairly gullible and I tend to believe that what people tell me is true

I don’t usually follow up to verify that what I’m told is true, I was raised in an environment where almost everybody simply spoke the truth.

Automatically I assumed (and it seems to be a pretty strongly ingrained thing, I still have this today) that everybody is always truthful.

That’s a serious weak point, and it has cost me dearly on a few occasions. Over time I’ve become more wary, especially the last 15 years have shown me a few very nasty instances of how cunning and calculating people can be when they deceive those around them for profit. I’ve gotten a lot better at spotting inconsistencies in peoples’ stories and this has helped to mitigate the gullibility factor to some extent, but if someone comes to me with a sob story I’m more likely than not overwhelmed by the emotion and willing to help even when I really should be more cautious. And every now and then a sob story is real, even when it sounds highly unlikely.

This particular mistake has cost me dearly over the years and has changed my personality to someone that is much more cautious than he would like to be.

2) When evaluating people I always see the potential, but hardly ever the reality

Most people achieve only a fraction of what they could do theoretically.

My problem is that when presented with a potential employee or partner that I tend to see what they could do, but not what they actually realistically speaking will be able to do.

It’s like looking at a sports car, you know it can do 150 miles per hour, but in real life circumstances it will hardly ever do that, more likely it will just have to obey the usual traffic rules and will periodically need refueling and so on. So you have to adjust your expectations based on real world conditions, and I’m very bad at that.

If it hadn’t been for that I could have predicted the burning out of some people in my surroundings with greater accuracy and possibly I could have prevented it from happening, and I would have been better able to estimate how much work I could expect to get out of a given configuration of people working on projects.

3) I either delegate too much or too little

This is probably one of my biggest shortcomings, when delegating stuff I either hand it off and don’t look back until I’m presented with some kind of disaster, or I’m so on top of it that whoever is doing the job feels like the dragon is breathing down their neck all the time. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, but I haven’t found it yet.

Over the years this has made life harder for employees, partners and customers, I could have done a much better job here. Trust but verify is something that I heard about way too late, it also applies to some extent to ‘1’ above. The mistakes I made because of this are along the line of letting people run a subsidiary company for over 3 months without checking the books (and finding out much too late that they’d gone off and spent 3 months worth of turn over in the local casino!), or riding shotgun on a new developer and disagreeing with just about every thing he did only to find out many years later that there are multiple equally valid solutions to a problem. This is probably one of the hardest things for me to do, to ‘let go’ and to accept that someone else will do something different from the way I would do it, but will still do a good enough job of it.

4) I’m a loner

When it comes to doing things, I can do way too much. Electronics, basic engineering, software, metalworking, woodworking and so on. If there is a technical skill I’ve probably tried my hand at it, and can do a reasonably job of it. Not perfect, but good enough for government work. That means that I’m pretty self sufficient and there are only a few fields where I know that I absolutely suck. On top of that I’m a voracious reader with an extremely wide interest, I remember most of what I’ve read.

Higher mathematics and design would be two of the fields that I really suck at, as well as managing people. The result of that is that I was pretty happy running my one man company and completely not prepared to deal with the reality of growing it, more people.

I wished that the ‘school of life’ up to that point had forced me more often to work together with people in a real team setting, first as a team member, and then as a team leader, so that I would have been better prepared to deal with that. It definitely didn’t help in my relations with the employees of the company when it grew. I was just a ‘techie’, never planning to be in charge of a company that size and I grew in to the job very reluctantly.

Now I’m back to ‘square 1’, alone (or, more precisely with one business partner) and much more happy because of that, still not sure if I’ve learned these lessons well enough to be able to grow again. Maybe.

5) I have a lot of energy, but not everybody is like that

Another one of those ‘expectation’ issues, I can work on stuff with tremendous energy, but that’s a rarity, and most people go about life at a more relaxed pace. I’m always doing something, I really can’t sit still for more than 3 minutes without having to get up and doing something (unless I’m watching a movie or reading a book, but that’s still doing something). Subconsciously I expect other people to be like that too, and I’m often quite surprised when they’re tired or zoned out in front of the TV or simply doing nothing.

So I tend to burn people out, they try to keep up and give up after a while. I should try to slow down a bit to a more moderate pace and keep the ‘energy bursts’ to myself.

6) I have a short attention span

It is difficult for me to stay focused on the same thing for a long time. This started when I was a kid, if I got some new toy I would play with it for its intended purpose for about 10 minutes, then rip it apart to see how it worked. It took a long time before I had skills enough to put stuff back together again.

I still have this, I learn pretty quickly, but once I understand how something works the mystery has gone out of it and I am likely to move on. But give me a puzzle that is ‘unsolvable’ and I’ll probably spend a lifetime on it.

The only exceptions here were Lego (I played with it over and over again), Electronics (taking stuff apart was both a source of parts and a way to learn) and programming.

I have to work really very hard to overcome this tendency and I’m pretty sure that it has cost me over the years to find little or no interest in doing the ‘grunt’ work of running a business.

7) I’m pretty harsh

When I see stuff I do not agree with I am very outspoken, diplomacy is definitely not my strong suit. Not everybody can deal with this and even though I try very hard to moderate the force I find it very difficult, especially when I think people are not nice to other people. That can bring out a force 7 gale in no time at all. Even though the emotion driving that is pure I could do a lot better by tempering my feelings and coming up with constructive criticism instead of full blown confrontation. This has soured my relationships with people on more than one occasion, and some of those people were important players in or around my business.

I take full responsibility for each and every mistake I’ve ever made, no matter whether or not other people were involved, if there was something that I could have done better than I regret not having done that. In the long term though, I hope I can improve these aspects and that by learning from my past mistakes which taught me about these traits, and I hope that I can avoid future repetitions.

I also hope that by reading about this you may be able to avoid some of my past mistakes.