On Sunday, Carol Dysinger won the Oscar for her short documentary, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl).
It’s a delightful film that will make you both laugh and cry, but this post isn’t a film review. It’s about a life lesson that I learned from her.
In 1977, when Dysinger was twenty-two years old, she won the coveted Student Academy Award. Frank Capra, famed director of You Can’t Take it with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, presented the award. It was (and is) a big deal — of all the student films made around the world, only one can win. Everyone, including Dysinger, assumed her career would take off like a rocketship from there.
Of course that stuff only happens in the movies.
Dysinger’s real story was more of a struggle. She has worked in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, making documentaries that won prizes and grants from top festivals. But nothing compared to her early win.
I met Dysinger in 2009 when I joined a grad film program where she was the editing professor. She was working on a film called One Bullet Afghanistan, which, more than twelve years later, she’s still working on.
It was during this time that Dysinger was asked to make a film about the girls of Skateistan — a school where underprivileged kids learn basic academics and how to skate. She accepted. Then this film, this side project, just took off.
Learning to Skateboard was nominated at major festivals and won at Tribeca and the BAFTAs before winning the Oscar for Documentary Short Subject.
43 years after Carol Dysinger won the student academy award, she won the grown-up version.
When I was her student, Dysinger’s favorite piece of advice was that becoming a filmmaker would take “a whole lot of not quitting” — a phrase she repeated during her acceptance speech.
A whole lot of not quitting. That’s great advice for pretty much anything. Everything takes much, much longer than we think it will. We get frustrated, upset and dejected. After six years or ten, we give up.
Sometimes quitting is the right choice. But often, those who reach the pinnacle do so not with shortcuts or luck, but because of a whole lot of not quitting. For decades.
I’m thrilled to see one of the good ones succeed — four long decades after her first taste of success.
Last week, I wrote a post on knowing the details. And yes, you should absolutely know them. However, do not let the details drive the vision. Throughout a startups’ life, there will be pivots both big and small. Each of those should be because it is the right decision for the company in the competitive environment in which it lives.
The reason large companies crawl along is that the layers of details and decisions and organization slow them down to a glacial pace — large companies defer to details. The way startups win is by moving fast and, when necessary, ignoring the details in order to point in the right direction.
One of the most useful pieces of advice that I got when I started at eBay was to know the details… in great detail. I was told that the head of the US business, Jeff, knew the details of the product and the business and if I went into a meeting with him without knowing those details, I wouldn’t be able to represent myself or the product org well.
Because of that advice, I spent my early weeks learning how the codebase worked, how the database tables were structured, what was hard to code (and why), and what was easy. I was glad I did because Jeff knew the details in a way that allowed him to understand how hard or easy things were to build. And he would constantly push us to move faster, launch sooner. In high-stakes conversation, instead of responding with a tepid, “I’ll have to get back to you,” I could confidently state whether something was doable or not, how hard it would be, and brainstorm solutions and alternatives on the spot.
Over and over, I’ve seen leaders who know the details push back when an engineering lead says, “Oh, that’s going to take six months,” or when a board member says, “You should be able to do this in six weeks.” A good CEO should know the details in any part of the organization that can have an impact on the company, whether that’s product, engineering, sales, finance, operations, etc.
I am not recommending a CEO micromanage — that is hellish and disempowering for everyone else. However, as a company grows, the number of people, processes, and checks and balances slow it down. Only a leader who knows the details can make sure that strategic priorities are getting done as fast as possible so the team can win.
This past weekend the world lost one of the greats: Kobe Bryant. Beyond the realm of basketball, he will go down as one of the most competitive people of all time. No matter what he was doing, he had to win — and he put in the extra effort to get there. In an interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Bryant shared a confession:
“I read [the referee’s handbook] to understand where they need to be in certain moments of time so if I needed to get away with a foul… That ref back there… is not gonna see this little hold right here.”
If you want to excel, Bryant showed the way — it pays to know the details.
Like many fathers, mine had a list of aphorisms he’d repeat. One of his favorites was “You come with nothing and you go with nothing.”
Last year, I got the middle of the night phone call every immigrant fears. It was too late to say goodbye. Landing in Chennai, coming home, and seeing him, so alone and still, the memory of his words resonated strongly.
This week, I’m in India again to mark the first anniversary of my father’s passing. One of the unavoidable side effects of this trip is being forced to think about life and purpose.
My father will be remembered for starting a company that focused on innovation and excellence, establishing environmental and worker safety standards much ahead of its time. More importantly, he’ll be remembered by employees for recognizing their contribution as vital to the organization. When the company was awarded the Deming Prize, my father took top management and union leaders to Japan so they could all accept the prize together.
He’ll be remembered for his creativity and love for tinkering, creating a go-kart from scratch while a student at IIT, Madras. And for taking apart the Nano, one of India’s new generation of small cars, slicing through the body and putting it back together to make it even smaller (and fully functional). More importantly, people will remember his infectious joy at solving a challenge he set for himself, his curiosity, his unwillingness to give up, and, despite his deep appreciation for the effort that created the ideal car for the country, his delight at having bettered something hundreds of engineers had worked on.
He’ll be remembered for his obsession with photography. For the incredible images that captured the scale and devotion of religious festivals of Madurai (as in the photo above), and the detailed and intricate ones that captured the delicate beauty of flowers. More importantly, he will be remembered by the people he taught to be photographers and by the people he impacted with his photography.
In a world where leaders are criticized for putting profit above all else, he will be remembered for how he lived with complete integrity.
What we leave behind are not just the things we create, but the enduring impact of how we do our work and pursue our passions.
It’s something I have thought a lot about this past year and that I will continue to think about in the years to come.
My father took nothing with him. But between the coming and the going, he left a lot behind.
A few days ago, The New York Times published an article about Usha Prabakaran — AKA the “pickle queen” of India. She wrote and self-published a niche, cult classic book with 1,000 pickle recipes from around India. I really enjoyed the article as it combined my love for pickles, my hometown of Chennai, and impressive women.
It’s also an article about an entrepreneur, and there are a number of useful lessons for those of us in the business of building businesses:
1. Bootstrapping to product-market fit is a great path to follow
But over the next two decades, “Usha’s Pickle Digest,” self-published by an unknown author, with a first print run of just 1,000, became a cult classic in India and its diaspora — praised for its precision and scope, celebrated on blogs and podcasts and hunted down in shops, where it sold out.
2. Be disciplined about product scope and get it out there; avoid feature creep.
In her book, Ms. Prabakaran limited herself to 1,000 recipes. When I finally got my own print-on-demand copy of “Usha’s Pickle Digest,” through Amazon, I was dazzled.
3. Focus on the goal. Learn what you need about other industries in order to accomplish the goal.
Ms. Prabakaran, now 64, became known as India’s “pickle queen,”but she wasn’t interested in monetizing that title. “I know nothing about publishing, and I was never interested in selling books,” she said at her home in Chennai. “My job is to keep the past alive.”
4. Sustainability is important.
A straightforward “anti-waste” chapter includes recipes for plantain skins, jackfruit seeds, ridge-gourd peels and lime leaves, which often end up in the compost heap. While restaurant chefs make headlines now for cooking less wastefully, pickling has always been about saving the scraps, developing flavor and texture with ingenious frugality.
5. Be laser focused on what actually matters. And you get to decide what matters.
Ms. Prabakaran is small-framed, with a wicked sense of humor and a big, throaty laugh. Her forehead is dimpled where the tumor was removed, close to the hairline, and she has no interest in reconstructive surgery.
“People care too much about looks,” she said with a shrug. “If I have any spare time, I want to work on my books.”
6. Don’t rest on your laurels. Move onto the next release, next product.
Ms. Prabakaran is at work on a second book, turning her attention to Indian rasam, a kind of soup.
7. Leave your customer feeling intense joy
The pickle did what all great pickles do: It revived me with a ripple of salt and acidity. The grainy oil tickled with chiles and citrus. It had the effect, with every breath, of filling my lungs with more air so I could breathe more deeply. And it made everything on the plate taste bigger, stronger, hotter, better.
“Isn’t it absolutely dynamite?” she asked. The question was rhetorical. She was grinning.
8. Founder-market fit is important. Do the work to know your space.
Ms. Prabakaran was hooked. She apprenticed herself, learning to turn jars in the sun so the fruit dried evenly, and to combine new and old tamarinds to balance out their acidity levels. She made so many pickles that she often gave jars away to friends and family, who begged her to write down a few recipes and share them. As she tried to standardize the recipes, her project became increasingly more ambitious.
9. Be unstoppable and don’t take no for an answer.
She spoke with publishers, and when none were interested in her idea, Ms. Prabakaran decided to do it herself.
10. Mission matters. Find the “why” that is bigger than yourself.
Ms. Prabakaran worried that without documentation, the gradual loss of this knowledge was inevitable — that more and more people would make fewer and fewer pickle varieties, until eventually, the expertise was lost.
“The reason for writing the book was to ensure that the vast culinary heritage of this land stays on the map,” she said.
11. Be resourceful to get what you need. 12. Focus intensely on the product your customers will see. You need to know it in extreme detail.
“My friends called me a crafty devil, because I could wriggle a pickle recipe out of anyone,” Ms. Prabakaran said. After she narrowed the recipes down from a catalog of 5,000, she tested each one in her home kitchen three times — a more thorough process than is used for many glossy cookbooks from big publishers.
13. Ignore the doubters, they may sometimes be friends or allies.
Friends who had supported her pickle book were skeptical — was there really so much variation when it came to rasam? Would she even be able to find 1,000 recipes this time around? And why devote a whole book to something so ordinary?
14. Be willing to do the hard, unglamorous work to make something great.
Ms. Prabakaran was undeterred. She sat down to write a love letter to rasam as a genre, extolling its value and declaring it worthy of celebration. Then she spent 10 years researching it, gathering and testing recipes, documenting patterns and anomalies.
15. Ignore the gatekeepers, work around them.
Ms. Prabakaran plans to self-publish the book in March. She wants to make it easy for cooks to find, right from the start, even if that means giving it away for free.
Entrepreneurs come in many forms. Ms. Prabakaran has displayed so many of the traits that make an entrepreneur successful. I recommend you read the article yourself. In addition to new lessons you may find, you will get a peek into a fascinating world.
I now own the pickle book (thanks, Amazon) and I’ll be on the lookout for the book on rasam. I’m not a great cook, but I always want to support the entrepreneurs who inspire.