I love, love, love numbers. If I am ever trapped on a deserted island, please just give me data and a scripting language and I’ll live out my remaining days content. After graduating, I spent four years in quant heaven conducting hundreds upon hundreds of Human Factors studies and reducing the world to performance indices and error rates. When we started Meebo, it took me no time to instrument every conceivable performance metric including whose blog posts were most read, emoticon preferences, and average time to open the first IM conversation. If it moved or clicked, *bam* — I logged it.
But with time, touchy-feely neurons sprouted within my data brain. Minimum viable products, “release early, release often” philosophies, feedback loops, and A/B testing help optimization and decision-making but they can’t guarantee that a product is awesome. Quantitative rigor is a requirement but what kills startups is not lack of data. What kills startups is when the 2-3 year strategy gets murky, when a product loses its pizzazz, or when management is no longer confidently aligned. It’s the fuzzy, intangible stuff.
I met with a CEO & friend last week who, after over a decade in business and millions of users, was considering layoffs. He’d spent the previous days sifting through years of decks with the question, “What went wrong?” haunting him. We were contemplating a front page redesign and I kicked off our creative session with, “Okay, let’s define awesome — why did you start this company?” but his response was surprisingly mournful, “I think that’s the problem. I think there have been times when I’ve forgotten that too.”
That spark that ignites founders is unfathomably huge. “Awesome” seems obvious initially and losing that passion seems absurd. However, business partnerships with big checks will tempt you from your strategy, late products will demand you shave features, a pivot will fling you into new industries and revenue models, a “go big vs. stay nimble” debate will divide meeting rooms, flashy headlines will make you question whether you’re a fad or a trend, and your significant other will ask, “Wait, why is this worth it again?” as you curtail your vacation for yet another supposed emergency. Very rarely will the answer be waiting on the internal dashboard.
The mission statement is supposed to be the company compass that cuts through the data clutter but it’s insufficient. The mission statement is merely a 12-24 month hypothesis of how the current business will be most successful. It does not define the unbeatable x-factor that perseveres the inevitable ups and downs. And when you lose grasp of that essence, the entrepreneurial experience starts to feel inauthentic, the passion dies, and years later you try to remember why you set down this path initially.
So the surprising advice from a data-head gone slightly soft is simple but I promise it will save you hundreds, if not thousands, of stressful hours. Before you hire your first employee or launch your first prototype, take a two-hour lunch to do a three-word exercise to define your founder awesomeness: who you are, what you do, and how you do it. At Meebo, our three words were, “simple, elegant, friendly.” Public companies’ three words can be approximated from their s-1s — Facebook’s might be “fast, bold, open” whereas Google might be “data, big, visionary.”
Logic-loving counterparts, I can see you skeptically furrowing, “Words? Wha? Elaine, I have 109 bugs to fix, I just ran out of coffee, and your blogs aren’t exactly short.” But wait, let me prove this is more than a touchy-feeling bonding exercise:
- Nip it in the bud. Whatever debates surface over this informal exercise are likely to be repeated countless times in the future: when to launch, how large an office to lease, whether to throw a party, what types of revenue models are palatable, whether your email tone is formal or informal… these debates are really about values and identity. Plus, these issues are likely to surface when you’re under stress and under-rested.
- Everyone does their part. By making this a team exercise, you spread the responsibility for upholding awesomeness across all founders — it’s not one founder representing fantastic user experience while the alter-ego founder battles for margins. These words become your shared playbook instead of divided territories.
- It’s inevitable. As you grow and build out teams like Product, Engineering, UX, HR, Sales, Marketing, and Customer Support, those team members will need to understand “awesomeness” so they can do their job: how to interact with customers, how to reward employees, how to pitch the vision, how to pace development, how to design the product, etc. What they are really trying to do is articulate the founders’ DNA. If it’s not readily apparent, those teams will define their own version of “awesome” and then that function will feel inauthentic and be ineffective.
STEP #1 – BRAINSTORMING
Digging into fuzzy stuff isn’t easy so before the two-hour lunch, here are four homework questions to prep:
- Who are your competitors? From a perspective, how are you different?
- Who are your enemies? A common enemy is galvanizing — what are you against? Loneliness, boredom, waste, mean people?
- Who are you akin to? If your company were < music, an animal, a car, or even a Disney character, etc>, what would you be and why?
- What’s your magic wish? If you could wave a magic wand and change absolutely anything (the crazier the better), what would be different in the world because of you?
When you share, pay attention to the words and themes that reappear. The why is more important than whether you 100% agree on specific Pokemon characters.
STEP #2 – SELECTION
Cull and clump common themes and words together. Get it down to three. Here are 575 words to start and some tips:
- Stick with three. You might think more words = more awesome. However, the more words you have, the more watered-down your essence is and the harder it is to prioritize later. Designing a front page with three words is a thousand times easier than with four words which is likely to feel incoherent. 99.999% of the teams I’ve worked with want to stop with four. However, your future teams will be enormously grateful that you took an ice cream break and whittled it down to three.
- Aim for tension. Your awesome words have more personality and power when they conflict with each other. For instance, “honest, open, transparent” is less effective than “honest, irreverent, idealistic.”
Avoid negative words.Be positive. This is your awesomeness! Think pep-talk motivator instead of “thou shall not” downer.
- Think big. Make at least one word aspirational — “simple” was Meebo’s aspirational word. We wanted to design products whose technical complexity was hidden within a streamlined user interface. Our aspirational was centered around the product but your aspirational word might refer to your identity, “largest, unbiased, champion, leader” or execution: “fearless, fast, risky.” That aspirational word keeps you reaching towards something instead of just defining your current status quo.
- Anticipate double meanings. “Bright” could mean smart or vibrant. “Together” could mean solidarity or buttoned-up. Those particulars matter.
- Choose words that will endure. You might be an “underdog” now but what about at 10,000 employees?
- Be suspicious of hollow pick-me-ups. “Excellence, nice, original, trustworthy, different, innovative” — are these words specific enough to help with decision-making? Why are you excellent? Why are you trustworthy?
- Focus on you — not the market. Every bank wants to be “honest, secure.” Every startup wants to be “social, open.” But what is it about your particular startup that is different?
Remembering what you didn’t choose and why will be important later so find a shoebox (or camera) and archive this somewhere safe. A Marketing person in your not-so-distant future is weeping for joy right now.
STEP #3 – VALIDATE
There might be one word that doesn’t sit quite right with you — that’s normal. The words will grow with you. But to gain a little bit of confidence before immortalizing these words forever, here are a few questions to think through as a team:
- Hiring: What skills and experiences do you look for based upon your three words? How is the recruiting process conducted so that your three words are self-evident to candidates?
- Team-building: What team behaviors are encouraged and discouraged based upon your three words? Decorated desks, heated debates, meetings that run long, swearing — are these acceptable or unacceptable behaviors?
- Leadership: What should leadership pay attention to the most? Consumers? Market? Team? Investors?
- Innovation: Where do ideas come from most often? How do you develop and validate insights? How does this scale?
- Decision-making: What is the appropriate response when two employees reach an impasse: hierarchy, escalate, gather more data, test and see, pick one arbitrarily and run?
- Tone: What language do you use to address your users? How frequently? What information do you share and hide? Which users do you prioritize and how?
- Sales & Marketing: How do you sell your story and product? Testimonials, demos, field expert influence, data, price, product speaks for itself?
- Development: What’s more important: development quality or development pace? How do you reconcile the two?
- Design: What expertise (i.e. typography, color, interaction, editorial) do you value most because of your three words? What other products embody one of your three words and why?
- Recovery: When you make a mistake with your (release a buggy feature, miss a promised deadline), how do you recover?
- Accountability: Who is ultimately accountable for goals? The manager, the employee, the founders? What are the repercussions for not meeting those goals? How are disappointed employees, investors, managers, etc reassured?
- Celebrations: How do you celebrate individual, team, and company achievements? Is reward solely salary, titles, equity, and bonuses?
Your words might not address all of these questions. That’s okay. At Meebo, we didn’t have an execution word and looking back, I can see how that generated a strong product brand but a more organic development philosophy. Had we tried answering these questions, we might have ferreted out those issues earlier and better realized our potential weaknesses.
But here’s the surprise — now that you’ve articulated your awesomeness, your metrics will make a lot more sense. You might realize that to be a “leader,” you need to prioritize market metrics. If your goal is to be “fast,” you might track release cycles and product stability. For “friendly,” your outreach, interaction, and reputation with users is key.
I once believed that data was pure and incontestable. However, in a business context, data is interpreted by people with unconscious agendas, is most frequently a trailing indicator that can only be gathered once a prototype has been built, and can never quite quantify “awesomeness.” No one sets out to build a lackluster product, hire an unexceptional team, or present substandard returns to their investors. While awesomeness cannot be quantified, it can be articulated and the earlier that’s done in a company’s history, the better.