By: Brianna Valleskey
The first thing you need to understand about Bozoma Saint John is that she is a total badass. Not only was she the first woman ever to speak at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference (praise be), but she’s also a brand executive with Ghanaian heritage currently making waves in Silicon Valley. The former Apple Music head of marketing fearlessly took on the role of Chief Brand Officer at Uber earlier this year. The ride-hailing service hit the jackpot with Boz, as she’s definitely the only person on the planet fierce enough to handle that job right now.
The second thing you need to understand about Bozoma is that she’s a masterful storyteller. She didn’t walk onstage for her INBOUND presentation. The woman sashayed. Full of swagger and sass. In the age of photo filters and tailored responses, her authenticity was extremely refreshing. And her presentation was on point.
“I believe brands are people.”
Bozoma’s story started long before she was born. She’s named after her paternal grandmother, who was the fourth wife of the village chief (her grandfather) in a Ghanaian coastal town. As a child, she and her family lived in California, Kenya and Ghana before moving to Colorado.
“I was 12, and the last thing on the planet that I wanted to be was different,” Boz said.
“But there I was, different: 5 feet 10 inches, long braids, strong Ghanaian accent.”
She felt like she didn’t belong, but her classmates were intrigued. They asked innocent, benignly offensive questions like did Ghanaian people sleep in huts? Were monkeys their friends? Had she seen a white person before? What she learned, however, was that it wasn’t the answers to those questions she needed to have ready; but rather, answers to the questions her classmates asked amongst themselves: Was Paula Abdul or Madonna a better dancer? (Paula Abdul). Which football team are we going root for on Sunday? (The Broncos).
One particular question has haunted her ever since: “What will I say?” It keeps her up at night. She wanted to say things that make her equal. She wanted to say things that make people sit up, pay attention and give her a chance. Now, she sits in a chief seat in Silicon Valley and wonders what her grandmother would think.
“I know I made my grandmother proud when I made a trip to the White House last winter,” she said while showing a picture with her and the Obamas. “Those who have walked this walk before us are so proud to see us standing in this space.”
Just as our ancestors’ legacy will forever leave a mark, Bozoma intends to leave a mark. No place will ever be the same once she sashays through it. More importantly, her story demonstrated how her culture shapes her personal brand.
“I believe that brands are people,” Boz said. “They have personalities. They have perspectives. They have hopes and dreams and fears and failures.”
Without the storyteller’s unique perspective, she added, the story falls flat. In one way or another, each storyteller injects their own excitement, their fear, their purpose into whatever tale they’re telling.
“A ride is such an intimate space.”
There’s someone/something in each our lives we want to make proud, Bozoma said. What is that for you? What motivates you? It could be people, events or even injustice (#takeaknee). She bet that each person in the entire room could name a brand that holds some sort of meaning to them. Even if that meaning seems irrational, we still believe.
“It is the belief that makes us choose that shoe brand over another, that drink over another, that disruptive ride-sharing app over another,” she said with a laugh. “I want to inspire that choice.”
Until this point, Boz explained, the brand of Uber has relied on the left side of the brain. The side that is rational, analytical, data driven, factual, objective and literal. But then things changed. Dirty laundry was aired, and people wanted to delete Uber. Suddenly, she explained, the left side of the brain couldn’t make sense of using the app.
The right side of the brain, however, is full of emotion. It’s the side that is sorry. It feels bad for wrongs and wants to make them right. It cares more for the human reaction than the mechanical, and Bozoma believes it has been silenced for too long. Uber has 16,000 employees dedicated to the future of technology and making the world a better place. That includes engineers, marketers, service reps and, of course, drivers.
“A ride is such an intimate space,” Boz mused. “When you get into a car, you’re a few feet away from a complete stranger.”
Some people choose to ride in silence; others engage in conversations that can go literally anywhere. Bozoma often hears drivers say they feel like therapists. People get into the car when they’re feeling sad or angry or anxious, and they talk their feelings out with someone they just met because, sometimes, it’s safer than a close friend.
“The chances are so slim. Probably impossible. There’s no math. Only magic.”
Long before joining Uber’s team, Bozoma had ordered an Uber Black at South by Southwest. She was terrified when it pulled up. The car looked as if it had been really good at some point, but then went through something terrible: parts had been smashed, the paint was keyed, the carpet was torn. She made a joke about it when she got in the car. Instead of laughing, the driver was embarrassed.
Boz asked him what happened. The driver got even more embarrassed as he proceeded to explain that his car had been vandalized by taxi drivers while he was helping a rider get her bags at the airport. The driver began to apologize. He knew he shouldn’t be driving the car like that. But his brother had recently passed, and he wanted to make extra money so he could honor him by seeing their favorite artist perform at SXSW: Iggy Pop.
Bozoma gasped. She got goosebumps. At that very moment, she was on her way to have dinner with Iggy Pop. What is the probability of her getting into that car with that person on that very night?
“The chances are so slim. Probably impossible. There’s no math. Only magic,” she said.
Bozoma doesn’t believe in accidents. She immediately knew they were meant to meet and that the driver should come to dinner with her. She invited him. They both cried. During the meal, she sat in wonder at their fortune while the Uber driver told Iggy Pop his story. She had met a total stranger in a city that wasn’t her home and made a powerful connection that they’ll both remember for the rest of their lives. It all started with an Uber.
“It’s important to see ourselves in the stories we tell.”
Now that Bozoma works at Uber, people feel inclined to tell her their own stories of using the ride-hailing app. But so much has changed in the way we tell stories about technology. Back in the 1980s, she said, technology was either fantastical or informational. Brands like Levi’s were selling a good time, and technology seemed almost out of reach. She explained that though we talk about a great divide between races and classes in America, technology platforms and products have lessened it (if not eliminated it entirely).
“The story we tell about [technology] can’t be cold. It has to be warm, like us. It has to be intimate,” she said.
Technology can connect us with other human beings, but what actually connects us to each other? Emotion. Human emotion drives all of our decision-making, Bozoma said. When you hear these stories, it’s her intention to make you feel something positive ― to recall them with inspiration or delight. As a brand marketer, that is her goal. She said that all brand stewards must be authentically themselves when telling their stories.
“It’s important to see ourselves in the stories we tell,” she said. “I hope that for each of you, the diversity of our stories will not just be told, but appreciated and celebrated.”
Naturally, everyone in the audience left with all the feels (i.e. Bozoma accomplished her goal). She’s high on my list of role models, and I’m looking forward to see her storytelling magic come to life at Uber.
By: Brianna Valleskey
How does one even begin to describe Michelle Obama? Lawyer. Activist. Feminist champion. Wellness crusader. Mother. Education advocate. Role model. Beacon of grace. Oh! And, of course, the former First Lady of the United States.
HubSpot’s INBOUND had its biggest day ever when the conference hosted Michelle as a keynote speaker this morning. Thousands of attendees woke up before the crack of dawn to get through stadium-level metal detectors at the conference center, secure an actual seat in the main stage auditorium and wait for hours just to hear the former First Lady speak. Ms. Michelle Robinson Obama did not disappoint.
In addition to sharing feelings on being in the spotlight and transitioning out of the White House, Michelle opened up about what it means to know yourself and be truly authentic. Her ideas were deeply moving (like people-crying-the-audience moving). I couldn’t not write about it. So here’s some motivation from the icon, herself, on living a life that’s genuine to you.
How to Be Authentic (Courtesy of Michelle Obama)
Do not let your voice be silenced.
Michelle’s currently writing a book. As she’s been collecting stories of her life for the book, she realized that a narrative starting to emerge: believing in your authentic self.
“Who I am, I was that way at three [years old]. I was a loud mouth. I was confident in myself,” she said. “If I was successful, it’s because of that. I was always Michelle Robinson Obama."
Michelle never tried to be anybody else. But not everybody is tapped into their authentic selves like that. Some of us have been taught that our opinions are less valuable. Women, especially, who have sat in a classroom, in a boardroom or around a conference table can relate to this. Women have been socialized to sit there and be quiet, she said. They think 12 times before opening their mouths. There’s so much that goes on that shushes women in the world, but it often happens in subtle ways.
“We can look at ever sector and every industry and find ourselves quietly letting our voices become invisible,” she said. “We can’t afford to just sit by.”
The key to not letting your voice be silenced is to love yourself. If you don’t like who you are, it’s easy to let people walk all over you. Michelle urged people to not only love themselves, but ask what it is about them that makes their opinion less valuable. Challenge the status quo. Understand your innate self-worth.
Do not live without empathy; without compassion.
Like every political figure, Michelle and her family have undergone loads of criticism. You can get past it by distinguishing between productive criticism and pure craziness (the latter of which is usually pretty easy to identify). But fame is a monster. Michelle explained that when you’re famous, people feel like they have the right to walk right up to you on the street and say anything they’d like. It doesn’t bother her as much as it likely bothers her kids.
“When you’re a grownup, what other people say about you doesn’t matter. You know who you are,” she said. “But when you’re young, and you don’t know who you are yet, it becomes difficult.”
Somewhere around 20-30 times a day, one of her children has to engage with a stranger who comes up, asks for a photo, shares an unwarranted opinion, etc. Michelle tries to be a model of grace for his kids. They see her reaction to all the fame as guidance.
“I think my kids are resilient enough to be empathetic to people, but it does take practice,” she said. “We all have to be a little empathic in this world. We have to exercise patience.”
Her advice: Take a moment to know yourself. Know your truth. Don’t let what other people say define you. Responding in anger might feel good in the moment, but it’s always better to handle people with kindness.
Do let your work speak for itself.
Michelle did not want to be a First Lady of slogans or symbolic gestures. It was important for her to enter the White House with a strategy and a set of initiatives that were part of that strategy. Even though every news story about her during that first year in office focused mainly on what was wearing, she didn’t feel the need to prove herself. She knew that her work would speak for itself; that people would come to know who she was through it.
“If you’re doing good work, and it’s having a good impact on people, all that other stuff will work itself out,” Michelle said.
And it did. Her initiatives changed our country’s dialogue around health. They moved the ball on nutrition and exercise, as well as created more conversations to enlighten people about what they’re putting in their bodies. But doing great work is about more than a legacy. It’s about how you treat the people around you (especially, those who work for you). Michelle loves managing people. Throughout her career, she has always treated her teams like family. That means asking how they’re doing, asking about their families and generally caring about their lives.
“You can’t get a job done with people and not recognize their humanity,” Michelle said.
Her philosophy of being a good manager is one of empathy, compassion and patience. Leaders shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that they’re working with actual humans.
Do absolutely anything.
What did Michelle say that she learned in the White House? That she can really do anything.
“As a woman, as a minority, as someone who is tall, as someone who is different ― we are put down with messages in our heads of what we’re capable of doing,” she said.
She joked about how people would ask her how she learned to be the First Lady, as if she didn’t have an entire life before getting to the White House. Each blow, each negative comment she had experienced long before then had made her the strong woman she was by the time 2008 rolled around. She was ready for the challenge of being the First Lady.
“Life teaches you grace. It gives you that ability, when you encounter obstacles,” she said. “Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t be afraid of obstacles. Those things make you stronger; make you better.”
It’s hard to not believe those words when coming from a powerful, incredible woman like Michelle. I can’t wait to read her book. Also, her favorite song off of the Lemonade album is “Love Draught.” YAS QUEEN.
By: Brianna Valleskey
There’s no question that Slack’s growth has been tremendous. The cloud-based collaboration software and message app now boasts more than nine million weekly users, six million daily users, two million paid users and 50,000 paid teams. Though the product officially launch in February of 2014, Slack generated an incredible amount of momentum throughout 2013 with clever marketing tactics like letting friends use it for free to provide feedback and inviting people to a “limited preview release.” (You can read more about it here). I learned a lot more about Slack when its CEO, Stewart Butterfield, spoke at this year’s INBOUND conference. Stewart is also the co-founder of Flickr, which sold to Yahoo in 2005 for (reportedly) around $20 million. So clearly, he knows a thing or two about scaling a business.
My favorite piece of advice had to do with coming up with Slack’s name. He cited “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding,” which advises choosing a name that you can say aloud and not have to spell for people. Fun fact: Slack was very nearly called “Honeycomb.” But, Stewart and his team wanted a name they wouldn’t feel embarrassed to tell others, was easy to say and spell (ideally, and English word), and had some emotional resonance. He explained that “Slack,” is a technical term in project management, describes how much excess capacity a system has to take on work. The Slack platform was designed to make people more productive and successful. And when that happens, you get some slack ― more room for creativity and innovation.
Thus, the Slack brand was born. But Stewart knows there’s so much more to branding than a catchy name and stylish logo. He shared a lot of other important leadership tips that contributed to Slack’s success. Below are some of my favorites.
Stewart Butterfield’s Seven Steps for Startup Success
Step One: Create a collective knowledge base of your company.
Not surprisingly, Slack’s own software has contributed quite a bit to the company’s growth. One of the major benefits of Slack is that it maintains a record of every conversation. If you’re an employee at a new company with 10,000 people, for example, you start off with an empty inbox. Billions of messages have been shared between people before you started, but you don’t get access to any of that information. Slack automatically accrues a massive archive of what’s happening at the company over time, Stewart explained. That enables new people to easily understand social protocols, norms, who answers questions, who makes decisions, etc. just by scrolling through various channel histories. There’s also a real value to those records in terms of more accurately communicating messages to other team members who might need to coordinate with your team.
Step Two: Foster alignment with lateral transparency.
The more a company grows, the more difficult it becomes to maintain alignment across an organization. Transparency helps. Slack provides that transparency in the sense that it removes opacity from an organization. People have the ability to understand what’s going on in various departments, instead of feeling left out on decisions and updates. Technical operations can see what the support team is dealing with. Designers are in tune with what engineers are working on. Stewart said that most of management’s effort in any company is coordinating people so that everyone understands what’s going on throughout the company. Slack helps with that.
Step Three: Don’t immediately search for an exit.
Stewart admitted he somewhat regrets not trying to make the Flickr platform even better for users before selling it to Yahoo. He can’t definitively say that Slack will never be acquired, but it’s not in the plan right now. Slack’s current valuation is in the billions of dollars. The company now has $200 million in annual recurring revenue, and Stewart said it would be a “banonkers” (his combination of bananas and bonkers) decision to not see how far they can take it. Instead, he said Slack should be the giant company that goes around acquiring other companies.
Step Four: Encourage risky projects.
When people are at a big, fast-growing organization, they tend to gravitate toward safe projects because they don’t want to put their job performance in jeopardy. Yes, those projects could have high rewards; but they also have high risks of failure. In order to keep innovating, however, Stewart said you need people to keep going after those risky projects.
Step Five: Branding is what happens when people interact with your company.
Slack has responded to almost every single message people have tweeted at the company, thousands of which Stewart, himself, replied to from the company account. He believes that a brand is the sum of all the interactions people have with your company. That’s why Slack focuses on small details like fast-loading pages and clearly written copy. But more importantly, the company responded to every single one of the thousands of customer support tickets they’ve received over the years. He thinks of if as investment in marketing. And it works. Slack has a 98 percent customer satisfaction rating.
Step Six: Put customers first. Always.
Internally, Slack’s measure of success in the long term is the amount of value it creates for our customers. Create so much value for your customers that they’re happy to pay you, Stewart advised.
Step Seven: Exercise and meditate first thing in the morning.
Oh, that’s not Stewart’s routine. He joked that he starts most days by grabbing his smartphone and looking through all his emails and slack messages until he’s so anxious that he just has to get out of bed. He does not recommend this. “Those people that exercise and meditate in the morning ― follow what they do,” he said, laughing.
What’s ahead for Slack?
Of course, Stewart’s session had to touch on what the future holds for Slack. Part of the current roadmap is to make the software smarter, perhaps even creating a feature that acts as a “virtual chief staff.” The software would read all your messages for you and proactively suggest the most important tasks for you to complete that day. Stewart confessed that he probably has more than 50,000 unread messages at any given time (which that makes sense given his CEO status). He manages to get through 50-70 percent of the messages that are important to him. It would be great if he could get through all of them, he said, and with a sense of priority.
“Decision fatigue is a real thing,” Stewart said. “The more decisions you have to make about priority depletes your ability to make those decisions.”
I definitely see where he’s coming from here. And with the pace that artificial intelligence is advancing, this feature might be something we could see in the near future. But for now, I’m quite satisfied with the amount of connectivity and productivity I get from the current platform.
By: Brianna Valleskey
Jen Rubio is my hero. She’s the co-founder of Away, a lifestyle travel brand that makes thoughtfully designed luggage, but also a super sharp entrepreneur, marketer and commerce expert. Jen used to run social media at Warby Parker, where employees would tweet video responses to questions about the product (while wearing Warby Parker glasses, of course) ― a visual branding strategy ahead of its time.
So when I found out Jen had a spotlight session at INBOUND this year, I was ridiculously pumped. She spoke about creating a brand with emotional appeal, building a product that actually helps people and marketing to a mass customer base (while also finding ways to specialize). Check out my summary of her insights below.
The Principles of Building a Brand People Love
1. Birthing an innovative brand ≠ reinventing a business model.
Not every entrepreneur has to reinvent the wheel. Or, as Jen put it, reinvent an existing business model. Warby Parker wasn’t the first business to sell glasses online. Away isn’t the first luggage company. But Jen knows this. How you can differentiate your business, she explained, is by creating an incredible brand that consumers want to interact with.
Every brand has an origin story (a founding myth), and Away’s story starts with a piece of broken luggage. Frequent travelers have likely noticed that the same few luggage brands always show up in airports. You assume it’s because those brands make quality luggage. Why else would people buy it, right?
Then Jen’s luggage broke. She went online and asked her travel-savvy friends what kind of luggage to get. The answers that came back surprised her: “I don’t know, but don’t get what I have.” Most people had inherited their luggage, received it as some sort of parting gift from a former job, or simply didn’t like it.
“There was just no overwhelming sense of brand affinity for luggage,” Jen said. “Travel is something that everyone does. It’s something that excites people. But why wasn’t there a travel brand that people were excited about?”
So she set off to make an awesome luggage brand that resonates with people, and for a reasonable price: All of their bags sell for under $300. Similar bags would cost anywhere from $600-900 in retail stores. But part of Away’s mission was to create quality-to-price value.
2. Design intention must equal customer perception.
Before creating the first prototype, Away did research. A lot of research. They started by sending out surveys where people were asked to check off the boxes of each feature they wanted in their luggage. All of the boxes would be checked off. When asked which features people wanted to pay for, none of the boxes were checked. So the Away team switched to field research.
“I cannot tell you how many hours we spent watching people pack,” She laughed. “We’d visit our friends and extended networks with coffee and bagels simply to watch them pack.”
Those hours were worth it. The team uncovered insights that helped them understand what to design for: People don’t like their shoes to touch their clothes. People snatch plastic bags from hotels to store wet clothes and dirty laundry.
“People are so used to having a crappy experience packing their luggage. They didn’t know how to describe what they needed,” Jen explained. “We had to witness them doing the act.”
Away iterated on their product hundreds of times to create its minimalist design. The more people use it, however, the more they realize why certain features are in place. Take the two zippers on each bag ― they create a distinct set of clicks when you clip them into the (TSA-approved) lock. You get both the satisfaction of a packing job well done, as well as the assurance that the bag is firmly shut.
Another part of good design is just making sure that what your design intention is equals the customer’s perception. Away’s luggage is made from polycarbonate (the same material used to make fighter jets), but they wanted the suitcase to have a little give in case it was ever dropped on the ground. So a flexible prototype was made and tested with a focus group. The result? The focus group assumed that the material was cheap and flimsy.
“We’re lucky that we had that group,” Jen said. “If we had gone out to the market with that, we couldn’t have been there to explain to every customer the thinking, intention and design behind what they perceive as cheap material.”
Those are the tiny details that make people obsessed with the product, Jen said. Customers frequently write in to thank Away for making them better packers.
3. The delta between good design and brand is emotion.
Jen loves to travel. She’s been to ~60 countries and all seven continents on the planet. The core of Away, as a company, is to create a beautiful, thoughtfully designed suitcase. But, she explained, you can have things that are beautiful and well-designed, and you still don’t feel a sense of connection with that product or that company. What makes something a brand is the emotional connection you feel with it.
“If we can inspire our community of people to look at a map and feel like all of it is in reach, then we’ll have done our job,” Jen said. “I know that seems like a lofty statement for someone who makes a suitcase, but the small things count.”
If that’s not creating an emotional connection to a brand, then I don’t know what is. Away’s secret sauce is to mix that emotion with phenomenal design. The brand identity for their luggage is very minimal: clean and simple, but not austere. It’s meant to attract a large market (i.e. people who travel). The company appeals heavily to specific market segments, however, by frequently collaborating with different brands. Away has worked with companies like West Elm and celebs like Rashida Jones to reach new audiences and go all out on various designs. Each collaboration has its own soul and spirit. (As I’m writing this, Away is featuring a gorgeous piece of luggage made in collaboration with Amastan Paris on its website).
“It’s easy to say your product targets people between the ages of 16 and 60 who travel, but you probably aren’t going to make anything exciting,” Jen said.
As a brand, Away is definitely exciting. But it’s also down to earth. Jen mentioned that Away isn’t meant to be like that person you follow in Instagram who takes all these amazing trips you’ll never be able to afford. Instead, Away is the person who you see travel somewhere and think to yourself, “I’m adding that destination to my list.”
4. Telling people about your product < Demonstrating what it enables them to do.
The experience of traveling is the essence Away’s brand. A key part of traveling, your luggage can really make or break a trip. Jen believes that packing and unpacking doesn’t have to be the worst part of it. That’s why Away exists as a travel lifestyle brand that monetizes by selling suitcases.
“A lot of luggage brands use their product pages to talk about the tech specs, materials and dimensions,” she said. “We do that, but a large majority of our product page is showing the bag in action: being packed, being stored under your bed, etc.”
Away’s store in NoHo (NYC) doesn’t sell luggage. It sells the experience of travel. One corner of the store is dedicated to the suitcase, where shoppers can move it around. Pack it. Play with it. But another corner is a cafe filled with travel books, magazines and city guides. It has shelves filled with things that you bring with you on a trip (like a sleep mask and headphones).
“If you’re not telling the story of what your product can enable something to do, then you’re just a company that sells things,” Jen said. “You’re not a brand.”
What I loved most about Jen’s approach is how she integrates seamlessly product design with brand storytelling. I’m looking forward to see what Jen and her luggage company do next. You can follower her on Instagram and Twitter at @jennifer.
P.S. I hope Jen writes a book someday. In the meantime. here are some great books on branding ...
By: Brianna Valleskey
Dug Song has been hacking since he was eight. The 42-year-old started three Internet security companies, survived the dotcom bubble and absolutely loves skateboarding. Those two sentences, alone, are pretty awesome. But he’s also the co-founder and CEO of DUO Security, one of the fastest-growing SaaS providers in the world.
I was fortunate enough to catch Dug at a fireside chat via Startup Grind Detroit this week. The event was hosted at the Bamboo Detroit coworking space, so naturally the conversation geared toward entrepreneurship, startups and growing businesses. Dug’s insights were candid and refreshing. No buzzwords. No growth hacks. Just honest and concise advice based on the lessons he’s learned from building multiple businesses. Below are three imperative elements of successful business growth he talked about during the event.
3 Critical Elements of Healthy Business Growth
Purpose: Thoroughly understand what you’re trying to do.
Security is one of the biggest global issues of our time. And because security can be painful and difficult to use, Dug explained, many companies (big and small) lay below the security poverty line. Most companies have the financial resources to acquire security software. What they lack are the human resources to manage it.
“We have a mission of democratizing security,” Dug said. “We think security can’t be effective unless it’s easy.”
That’s why DUO built a world-class security platform that people actually enjoy using. Dug used to be an open source developer, even though he had a full-time job. But he created open source code in his free time because he believed that everyone should have access to encryption. It’s his purpose. And DUO is built around other people who share that purpose.
DUO further democratizes security by sharing educational content for free. Anyone can easily access the eBooks, videos, infographics, events and more on the website. That’s part of the DUO sales methodology: Help, help, sell. Team members go out of our way to be helpful with people before they even try to tell them about what DUO offers.
As a company, DUO understands why it exists. The team members are eager to work together toward their mission of making security easier to use and more accessible. As Robert Baratheon puts it in the first season of Game of Thrones: “One army, a real army, united behind one leader with one purpose.” That is the foundation of a strong business.
Community: Bring people together. Help them grow.
Fast-growing businesses must think hard about the composition of the team. No football team would recruit only running backs. That’s why Dug and his team put a lot of consideration into assembling employees with diverse backgrounds and skill sets. He said they work hard to ensure every hire is additive in some unique way.
More importantly, the leadership focuses heavily on how they can help employees reach their professional goals. How does DUO fit into the story arc of their careers? Managers have weekly one-on-ones with employees to discuss how things are going with them, how the company is doing and how DUO is helping their career.
“We just have a bunch of systems to try and keep track of someone’s career at DUO,” Dug said. “But if someone decides they want to do something else, it’s no sweat. We cheer them on.”
It was at this point during the fireside chat that I decided working at DUO would be awesome (Note to self: Check out DUO job openings online). DUO also borrows organizational learning activities from agile development. Specifically, retrospectives. Teams get together on a regular basis and discuss what’s working, what’s not, what should they try next, etc. It’s also an opportunity for them to give shoutouts to other team members for doing great work. They open and close each meeting with a few minutes of peer recognition.
The final piece of community building Dug mentioned was a board report he puts together with his team. Every six weeks, each of the functional team leaders write down all their plans, successes and problems they’ve experienced over that timeframe. This process allows them to document every major decision, every success, every failure, every learning. And he doesn’t just share it with the board; the entire company has access to the document. Their community shares collective knowledge.
“If you don’t know where we’ve been, you don’t know where you’re headed,” Dug said.
Culture: Focus on passion, not payouts.
Starting a company is hard ― any entrepreneur can tell you that. Every day is either the best or worst of your life. When DUO started, Dug explained that it was just him, his co-founder Jon Oberheide and a stuffed tiger (Note to self: Ask Dug about stuffed tiger). He related building a company to skateboarding: 80 percent is falling on your face and then getting back up to try again.
“Any kind of exponential growth comes with the long, flat part of the hockey stick where you’re just grinding and hope you don’t die,” he said.
But DUO grew and made it past its first few years, which (statistically speaking), means a company will likely survive. Dug credits the company’s purpose, community and culture for making it through those years. Note that when Dug says “culture,” he’s not talking about ping pong tables and beer Fridays. Real company culture is how people treat one another; how they work together to achieve a goal. Although Silicon Valley tends to fetishize failure, Dug added that there’s a certain degree of ambient failure that DUO wants to see at the company.
“If people try things and nothing ever goes wrong,” he said, “we aren’t trying hard enough.”
A couple people asked Dug if there was in IPO in the future for DUO, but he seemed more interested in continuing to grow the company than looking to exit. This isn’t his first rodeo. Building a great company is hard when you haven’t practiced building crappy ones. Dug answered the IPO question by saying that entrepreneurs should get some experience building companies that get increasingly bigger and broader in scope and scale. This hinted that DUO is aiming for more than just profit. The company’s passion for genuine company culture and healthy business growth proves it.
I’ve been to a lot of startup events where entrepreneurs share their wisdom, but I’ve never been quite as impressed as I was at this event. I look forward to watching DUO continue to grow.
P.S. Here are some of my recommendations for books on being an entrepreneur and leader...
By: Brianna Valleskey
I work with a lot of small- and medium-sized businesses that all want the same thing: growth. And that’s great! Growing your business means serving more customers, creating new jobs, generating innovation and, of course, increasing the bottom line. But, this is also where I see a lot of companies start to fail.
We know that failure is common among small businesses. According to the Small Business Association, about two-thirds of businesses with employees (not sole proprietorships or “solopreneurs”) survive at least two years, and almost half survive at least five years. Often-cited articles from outlets like The New York Times, Forbes and Inc. document the numerous reasons many business fail: dysfunctional management, slow or stagnant cash flow, financial illiteracy, poor value proposition, lack of cash cushion, operational flaws, low demand for the product or service … the list goes on.
There are a few areas, however, that I feel like haven’t been discussed at length. These observations come directly from companies I’ve either worked with or worked at, some of which are absolutely killing it. Others, not so much. Here’s what I’ve learned from being on the front lines of multiple SMB companies.
3 Things that will Absolutely Run Your Small Business into the Ground
1. Try to do too many things at once.
Successful business growth involves a lot of moving parts, including a well-oiled lead generation funnel, a fluid sales process, strong customer retention and (of course) a strong value proposition for your product or service. The trick is that you can’t perfect all of those things at once. I know of a software company that was constantly struggling to communicate their value prop, while also trying moving upmarket, expand their product and reduce customer churn. The result? They couldn’t do any one of those things well because the company lacked focus. In addition, they lost almost half of their employees ― some were voluntary departures after being overworked; others were laid off due to the company’s poor performance.
I also know of a company that has a 98 percent retention rate with high-profile customers like Uber and Paypal. I kid you not. This CEO waited for years to perfect his company’s product and implementation process so he could ensure customer success. If you don’t believe this method works, just look at Slack. The company started building their product in December of 2012, launched a beta version (they called it a “preview release) in May of 2013, and then finally launched to the public in February of 2014. Slack spent 14 months perfecting its product. As a result, its become one of the fastest-growing companies in the market.
2. Undervalue your employees.
You can have the best product in the whole world; but if you don’t have good employees to market the product, close deals with the right prospects, serve your valued customers or iterate on the product, you do not have a business. And you will not make money. I won’t even go into the fact that a service business is based entirely on the performance of its employees. Another company I’m familiar with brought in a majority investor that completely changed the company culture. They rid the company of anything that didn’t have to do with business operations, especially anything that resembled “startup culture” (or an immature culture, as I imagine they viewed it). No more autonomy. No more monthly company roundtables. No more team-building events. No more beer Fridays. No more ping pong during office hours. Oh, and office hours were strictly defined as 8-5 or 9-6. The company culture soon became dry and lifeless. People starting leaving. Multiple employees voices their concerns to management, but soon most of the management was leaving, too. The concerns then fell on deaf ears. To my knowledge, they still are. And the business is not doing well.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Look at Uber: After blatantly ignoring employee complaints of its employees, the company suffered a public relations disaster of epic proportions when those employees went public with their stories (examples here and here). Some of the companies I work with, on the other hand, understand the deep value of investing in your employees. They treat the company as a horizontal organization and value each individual’s point of view. Those organization are growing like crazy. Seriously. One of them is even on Inc.’s list of fasting-growing companies in the country. And it’s all because they treat their employees like the most loyal customers. In return, the employees are happy to come to work, be productive and take part in such an enthusiastic atmosphere. Sir Richard Branson was right: “Take care of your employees, and they’ll take care of your business.”
3. Underinvest in proper marketing.
I know this part seems totally biased because I’m a marketing geek. But hear me out. In the age of endless information, marketing is the number one way to get your product noticed. It involves understanding your buyer, the problems your company solves, the problems it doesn’t solve, and its unique value proposition. I once spoke to a business with an innovative product. But the company had never invested in marketing. They thought that once they built the product, they’d build brand awareness and people would start buying. You know who else built brand awareness? TiVo. You know who’s stock has decreased 85 percent since reaching its peak over a decade ago? TiVo. The company spent so much time building a brand that they forgot to create their category. People understood what TiVo did, but they didn’t understand why they needed it.
I can’t think of a single person I know who uses (or even owns) a TiVo. You know almost everyone I know has? Netflix. TiVo let you watch what you want, when you want. Netflix lets you watch what you want, when you want. But consumers didn’t know they wanted that until Netflix embarked on a rather brilliant marketing scheme of creating exclusive content. Now, we can’t live without it. More people are cutting the cord on cable and relying exclusively on streaming services like Netflix. People used to say they were going to “TiVo” something. People now say they’re going to “Netflix” and chill. Another note I need to make in this section is that I see a lot of companies leave marketing in the hands of people who are not competent. It’s as if marketing is viewed more as a side function, rather than an imperative driver of brand awareness, lead generation and customer acquisition. Hire marketers who can craft strategic campaigns and measure their results ― especially ones who can write well. When your messaging is clear, your sales go up.
These are just my thoughts based on experiences I’ve had working with SMB companies. I’d love to hear your insights, too. Feel free to leave a comment below, or check out some of my favorite books on business and marketing.
Fearless Thoughts are my insights on marketing, entrepreneurship, startups, business growth, creativity and whatever else comes to mind on any given day. Writing is how I make sense of the world.