Startup Grind
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Startup Grind

My quest to run a 1000-person company from an iPhone

During meetings, I can see people raising their eyebrows. What’s this guy doing staring into his phone? Is he even paying attention?

Yes, absolutely. The truth is for the past year, I’ve been steadily weaning myself off of my MacBook — relying more and more on my iPhone for work.

With the iPhone having just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, after winning over hundreds of millions of users around the world, this may not sound like a huge accomplishment. In fact, lots of people live on their phones.

But, for context, I’m the CEO of a growing tech company of nearly 1,000 employees. Each day, I get hundreds of emails, go to a dozen or so meetings and review countless reports. In the past, I couldn’t imagine doing my job without a PC.

But, it turns out, it’s possible.

To be fair, going “mobile-only” has led to a few hiccups. But since taking the plunge, I’ve noticed that my productivity — and overall happiness — has gone up noticeably. For other leaders out there, I’d like to share some insights from my year on mobile.

A few disclaimers:

  • First, I cheat. I still have to use my laptop on occasion for looking at spreadsheets and PowerPoints.
  • This mobile-only strategy obviously isn’t for everyone. If you’re a developer writing code, it makes sense to have a proper screen.
  • Yes, being a CEO makes this much, much easier: I don’t have a boss hassling me about being on my phone all day; I have an EA who handles my calendar; etc. But I still think there’s some value for everyone in this approach.

Leaving my laptop

It was Siri that helped me make the switch. Voice dictation has gone from a fantasy to a viable technology almost overnight. Once I realized I could essentially just talk to respond to emails or write memos, I found myself spending a lot less time with my laptop.

I felt a little weird at first mumbling into my phone all day, but that wears off fast (and it seems to be becoming more culturally accepted). The big upside is that I can speak a lot faster than I write. And the inevitable Siri-isms are growing fewer with each iOS update.

In terms of apps, Google Drive was a huge help. The interface is mobile friendly. Changes are tracked automatically; everything is immediately accessible in the cloud. When you don’t have to worry about uploading or downloading and all you do is click on a link, document management on your phone becomes doable.

Unexpected benefits (and limits)

Early on, I was surprised by an unexpected benefit. Laptops inevitably form a kind of wall, physically separating you from the person you’re meeting with. Once I left my laptop behind, I found I actually absorbed — and retained — a lot more in meetings and in conversations.

But, to be honest, I also felt kind of powerless without my MacBook, especially at first. In the past, if a colleague sent a report, I’d open up the doc and pore over every page, making tons of edits. But you just can’t do that kind of thing on a phone. Reading and editing more than a few pages at a time is a recipe for a bad migraine.

Eventually, though, I saw that this was as much an advantage as a liability. Going mobile-only turns out to be a pretty neat hack for fighting the temptation to micromanage. This is something that I’ve wrestled with. Hootsuite grew from a few dozen to a few hundred employees almost overnight. Learning what to delegate and when to step away was a challenge.

The beauty of being a mobile-only CEO, however, is that it forces you to get out of the weeds and focus on the big picture. As an executive, your role is to execute: to quickly weigh options and reach conclusions based on experience and intuition. Ditching my laptop has made me much better at that core function of my job.

The mobile-only future we need to get ready for

There’s another easy-to-miss benefit of going mobile. Globally, people now spend nearly four times as much time accessing the Internet from mobile devices as they do from desktops.

PCs are on their way to becoming an anachronism rarely seen outside of the office. I’d argue that even the way we think is increasingly mobile in nature: for better or worse, small visual bites have replaced big chunks of text as the language of the 21st century.

But — as businesses — we’re still coming up with tools, strategies and products on laptops and with a corresponding mindset. This kind of “laptop tunnel vision” creates an artificial distance from consumers.

Lots of companies these days talk about a “mobile-first” strategy, but the reality is we need to be thinking about a “mobile-only” future. Going “mobile-only” as a leader — and maybe one day as a company — is a way to help bridge that gulf.

We’re not quite there yet, of course. Some things are just immeasurably easier to do on a keyboard, with a big screen in front of you. But app developers and designers are finding increasingly creative ways to streamline complex tasks.

Smartwatches and glasses are pushing the usability envelope even further. Meanwhile, neural lace might not be too far off, promising a direct brain-device link that does away with UIs altogether.

For now, going mobile-only as a leader can be a powerful way to put your employees and customers at the forefront and refocus your energies on leading … not “computing.” At the least, it’s a unique management efficiency exercise to see if you can actually run a company from your phone — just remember to keep your battery charged.




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Ryan Holmes

Ryan Holmes

Entrepreneur, investor, future enthusiast, inventor, hacker. Lover of dogs, owls and outdoor pursuits. Best-known as the founder and CEO of Hootsuite.

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