During a typical skimming on Notion of notes collected throughout the years, I'll usually run into something that feels particularly relevant now or that had resonated strongly with me at one point. A few days ago I was performing this curiosity skim on the notes I had taken in attendance at the Seattle Interactive Conference in 2018. There were some amazing talks spanning brand design, emerging technologies and evolution of content in respect to Artificial Intelligence.
There was one talk I recall feeling especially engaged in, partly due to how well of a storyteller the speaker was but also how much the points he made spoke truth. Unfortunately I have only the titles of the talks, wish I had written the names of the speakers. Perhaps someone who also attended that year can remind me. 😅
The talk focused on becoming a better leader with a focus towards those guiding smaller companies in earlier growth phases. The speaker has years of experience developing startups (including many of his own) and advises other entrepreneurs regularly. These are the seven core patterns he noticed differentiating successful businesses from failed ones - especially early on.
Focus, focus, focus. Have one feature, one service, one product that you are exceptionally good at. It must be remarkable to the point where people will only want to turn to your company for that one thing. If you focus on being known for too many things, the pressure for perfection in each direction can begin to eat away your company and leave your brand scrambled.
A great story will linger in the minds of your customers for much longer than pitching just the feature or product. Take time to cultivate a captivating story. Start with the most emotionally resonant problem - what fueled you to create a solution for the problem your company claims to solve? What about your situation can your customers empathize with?
Be sure to center your story on individuals, not on groups. Talk towards a defining experience. A good test is if the story can trigger your own emotions. Does reciting it make you relive that moment, feel the frustration of the conflict, reignite the butterflies in your stomach that once rushed in from the thrilling moment the idea for this company was born?
Rather than trying to launch yourself towards everyone possible, ask yourself what kind of customer would really benefit from your product. Create user personas identifying character traits, difficulties and stories around what would make you their perfect solution. The best way for an inventive idea to spread is word of mouth. As Sam Altman says in The Only Way to Grow Huge:
"All companies that grow really big do so in only one way: people recommend the product or service to other people. What this means is that if you want to be a great company some day, you have to eventually build something so good that people will recommend it to their friends—in fact, so good that they want to be the first one to recommend it to their friends for the implied good taste. No growth hack, brilliant marketing idea, or sales team can save you long term if you don't have a sufficiently good product."
When a product is such a delight to use, you must notify your friends with similar concerns who's lives would be a little easier from this product. A great way to start is with people close to you. When you test the product with people who know you, you might be less likely to get a hesitant response of the flaws and more likely to spark a conversation of how you can improve.
While building the barebones of your product, very little can be managed to just get the point across. However, that doesn't mean it's automatically ready to be launched. Once you've gotten feedback after testing your idea amongst a trusted and relevant audience, it's worth spending a little time making the experience just a bit more enjoyable than the rest of your competitors before you launch. If there are already so many others that claim to provide a similar solution to yours, this extra bit of ease in the experience can go a long way.
Essentially, don't get so caught up preaching the highlights of your product that you forget to actually build it in a launch-able state.
This mantra can be applied to many areas of life. The speaker primarily focused on stressing the importance of where your time is going in the beginning stages of a startup. Make sure you track the areas of your project that are getting the most attention and consistently ask yourself if your time is being divided in a productive way. Are you working on fixing a bug that customers often complain about or changing the colors on your "About Us" page? This will allow you to avoid the inevitable burnout of focusing on multiple different parts of your product, but rather put your time to effective use.
Another angle this statement could be taken is in interpersonal relationships. Wisdom guru Jay Shetty once said on his podcast:
"People don't want your time, they want your energy."
You want to ensure the time you are giving to your employees, to your customers, to your investors and stakeholders is time where they feel they are being heard and accounted for. It might be 10 minutes a week, it could be an hour a day. But, overall they will note the presence (or lack thereof) that you shared with them when it comes time to back your project.
This is probably one of my favorites. If you hire those you feel are the best fit for your company, it will surely thrive. But, if you hire mismatches, it will likely damage the company even more than those that fit will improve it. It becomes quite clear in the early stages of a startup how important it is to be surrounded by those who can think quick, are communicative, are supportive of experimentation, and think of their work as a team sport. Even better is to hire those who are as excited about your mission as you are, those that you don't need to constantly motivate because their involvement with the project is fuel enough to keep going.
The speaker further iterates with the following guideline - "Hire for culture, train for competence." Finding someone who knows the specific tech stack of your company becomes a lot harder when you also have to ensure they are a good fit for the company. But if you find a programmer who you deem is ideal for the culture, even if the particular system you use might not be their strong suit it's worth giving them some time to onboard with the confidence they will be a strong and supportive addition to the team.
Zebras and Unicorns? Here, we're referring to Zebras as those that stand out amongst their competitors and Unicorns as those that are so unique there can be no competitors. Statistically speaking, you have much higher chances of becoming a zebra - a breakthrough in an existing field, of being "the best of the best" in that field. Unicorns create their own fields, one which they're of course guaranteed to stand out in, but whether or not that field will be one customers will want to adopt into their lives is another battle.
It's well known by now that many of the companies at the top of their field are not the first, but rather the best at what they do. They are Zebras, not unicorns. Zebras also fix what unicorns break. Since Unicorns are the first to enter they make many mistakes, mistakes that the Zebras can observe and brainstorm solutions for.
It's worth asking yourself, what are you seeking professionally? What do you want to create? Will this make you a Zebra? Can you learn from the previous paths others have treaded down?