As COO for Seattle lunch delivery startup Peach, Gary Cowan hosts dozens of meetings each week to check in with the various departments keeping the business afloat.
“My job is to help orchestrate the company’s overall growth and profitability,” he said. “This covers product management/planning, sales, operations, finance and marketing.”
Before Peach, Cowan held a number of leadership roles, like directing search for MSN and Amazon and leading product and marketing efforts for DataSphere. He also served as a product manager for Windows in the early 2000’s and senior director of RealNetworks.
Over the course of his career, Cowan has devised four guiding principles to keep meetings focused and productive. He shared those guidelines, as well as productivity tips, favorite apps, and more for this installment of Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Current Location: “Downtown Seattle — 1201 3rd on the 15th floor. Great views!”
Computer types: “Peach is mainly an Apple shop, but I and a few other renegades cling grimly to our Windows machines, particularly for Excel-heavy tasks.”
Mobile devices: “Every shape and flavor. I personally have a Samsung Note 4, but there’s no particular standard and iPhones are, of course, prominent. Since most of our business is done through mobile devices, it’s helpful to have some variety.”
Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: “Most of the apps I use are pretty boring and practical: Audible, Lyft/Uber, Facebook, LinkedIn etc. Since I operate more on the business side rather than the dev front, the tools I use most are focused on analysis and communication. While the company as a whole uses Google Apps to a large extent, I still find that I spend most of my time (apart from email) in Office 365 (Excel, Word, and Powerpoint) — there are still a lot of rough edges in Google Apps that are particularly frustrating if you are familiar with the shortcuts in the Office suite.”
Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? “Apart from the great views and convenient central location, there are a few other cool features including a great communal lunch experience (we get lunch delivered by Peach of course), a treadmill desk for breaking up long work sessions, lot’s of boutique coffee, free snacks/drinks and fairly regular Nerf skirmishes. We have an open floorplan so it’s easy for everyone to keep tabs on what’s happening across the company and feed off the excitement as good things happen, or rally around to deal with problems.”
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? “Prioritize. Understand which activities are the most impactful and be comfortable in not getting to the others. There will always be more to do but there is enough time to get the critical stuff done, and if you prioritize wisely, you’ll be building the assets that will allow you to get more done in future.
Don’t confuse time spent with productivity. An hour spent with full focus and flow can be far more productive than a whole day without it.”
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? “For work, LinkedIn. Apart from its use as a recruiting tool, it’s also very helpful in facilitating connections with key leaders in organizations of interest to us.”
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? “A lot. Intentionally. Very few of these warrant answers. A big proportion of emails do not require a response, and to take pride in responding to the unimportant is just busywork and detracts from higher leverage activity. I do subscribe to the philosophy of processing emails quickly and moving on rather than letting them marinate.”
Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? “28.”
How do you run meetings? Four key guiding principles: One, be clear as to the purpose of the meeting and what you are trying to achieve; two, make sure to only invite those that are necessary for the meeting and ensure that their focus is on the meeting, not their phones, laptops etc; three, be aware of the dynamics of the meeting and ensure that less assertive attendees are encouraged and given room to participate while more assertive members don’t just dominate by virtue of their personalities; four, if it’s a meeting that is intended to drive action (as opposed to say, informational), make sure to specify and reiterate next steps then follow up by sending these out in writing so there is no confusion about expectations.
Everyday work uniform? “Business shirt and jeans, except for our ‘Fashion Fridays’ when we have specific themes from Hawaiian to ‘Canadian Tuxedo.'”
How do you make time for family? “It’s actually pretty tough during the week, especially with the kids having so many activities. The weekends are better since I make a point of disconnecting from work. The highlights, though, are our family vacations. We always invest time at the start of the year to plan out interesting trips where we can get away from the distractions of everyday life and share some great times together. This summer, for example, we backpacked the Northern Loop on Mt Rainier for 5 days then went rock hunting near Bend. Experiencing these new things together really brings us closer as a family.”
Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? “Running and playing guitar (usually not at the same time).”
What are you listening to? “The Wonder Trail: True Stories from Los Angeles to the End of the World, by Steve Hely.”
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? “I’ve set up a page on ighome.com that aggregates stories from sources of interest including general news like Reuters, the BBC, the Economist and NextDraft, science-focused sites like Popular Science and Wired, alongside more industry-specific sites like TechMeme, TechCrunch and GeekWire (naturally!). I also find fivethirtyeight.com to be a fun read if you’re into stats-related info (which I am).”
Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. I’m really trying to wrap my head around what’s happening in this election cycle. It’s pretty disheartening overall.”
Night owl or early riser? What are your sleep patterns? “Probably somewhere in-between. I am usually in bed by 10 p.m. and up before 6 a.m. Personally, I find it difficult to get motivated to do exercise in the evenings so I make sure to run, stretch and work out in the morning to get a head start on the day and get the blood flowing. This really helps me keep focus while at work.”
Where do you get your best ideas? “Usually, from a combination of looking at what other companies in a wide range of industries are doing, and just thinking deeply about how we can better fulfill customer requirements.”
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? “If I had to pick just one at this stage it would be Elon Musk. I just finished Ashlee Vance’s biography and it’s amazing to see how he was able to really make an impact in areas where he had no real background, then build and run two large, rapidly iterating companies (SpaceX/Tesla) while also helping to guide a third (Solarcity) as chairman. That is an incredible achievement.
However, different leaders have different strengths and so it’s very helpful to look across a number of them and consider about which aspects resonate for you. There are also different leaders that have relevance for different challenges and stages of a company’s growth. Satya seems to be doing a great job at Microsoft in reinventing the company. The skills and approach required for that role, however, are very different than those that would most likely lead to success in an early stage startup. Also, have to give a nod to Jeff Bezos, of course — to have started a basic online retailer with very little in the way of defensibility, and built it into such a wide-ranging omnivore is astounding. I especially like the way he stepped up to own the unsexy work of operations, which in the end can really give a company a million small ways to best the competition.”