By Brianna Valleskey
My primary takeaway from “Avengers: Infinity War” had nothing to do with the Avengers.
Don’t get me wrong: The movie, itself, was great. But afterward, I was most intrigued with the Guardians of the Galaxy. One Guardian in particular--
Yep, the soft-spoken empath with antennas who joined the Guardians in the sequel.
Mantis can sense and manipulate the emotions of other people (although her character in the comics is much more robust), and those abilities play major roles in both “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Infinity War.” One of the most effective uses of her powers are to make someone feel relaxed enough to soothe them into a deep sleep.
(Spoilers ahead. But seriously go see these movies.)
At the end of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” the team attempts to stop Ego (a “god-like” living planet and Quill’s biological father) from planting seedlings across the universe to consume planets and turn them into extension of himself. No bueno. But they need Mantis to put Ego to sleep so they can destroy the cosmic brain at the core of his planet. I mentioned that he’s a planet, right? But she does it, like a total badass.
And that’s not all. Infinity War features Mantis playing an integral role in a plan to stop Thanos from collecting all six Infinity Stones and using them to exterminate half of all life in the universe. He keeps them in a gauntlet on his left hand to harness their power. But before he’s able to find them all, some of the Avengers confront him on his home world.
Thanos is ridiculously powerful (and even more so with the Infinity Stones). So it takes a combination of Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Spiderman, Quill and Drax to distract and restrain him. The secret weapon to their strategy is—you guessed it—Mantis. She lulls him into a stupor while Iron Man and Spiderman attempt to pull the glove containing the Infinity Stones off of his hand. And they almost succeed! That is, until Quill finds out that Thanos killed Gamora, starts attacking him and basically ruins the whole plan.
Anyway, the point is that a character trait that might typically be perceived as “feminine” or even “weak” actually turns out to be incredibly powerful and useful when it comes to saving the galaxy. After seeing that movie, I developed a hypothesis that empathy might also actually be incredibly powerful and useful when it comes to running a successful business.
So I did a little research.
Why Empathy is an Underutilized Superpower in Business
In a study of 1,850 of CEOs, HR professionals and employees, Businessolver found that eight in ten agree that an empathetic workplace has a positive impact on business performance. What’s more? A whopping 87% of CEOs believe that a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy in the workplace. Nine out of ten employees, however, reported that they felt empathy remains undervalued.
So should we value empathy more at work? Let’s take a look at some its effects:
Empathy fosters an engaged workforce.
We’ve all heard that Gallup statistic that says only 32% of employees are actively engaged at work. It’s staggering, but not as much as the fact that actively disengaged employees cost the United States $450-550 billion each year. The organizational benefits of employee engagement are measurable: Businesses with the highest levels of employee engagement experience 22% more profitability, 21% more productivity and 10% better customer ratings.
Here’s where empathy comes in: When working for an empathetic employer, nine out of 10 employees are more likely to stay with an organization that empathized with their needs, and eight in 10 are willing to work longer hours. Those in demanding industries like tech, healthcare and financial services will even trade pay and work hours for an employer they perceive as empathetic. So empathetic leadership actually makes employees more motivated to work for that organization, which could offer an effective direct antidote to active disengagement.
Empathy increases job performance.
Although many theories identify empathy as an important part of leadership, the Center for Creative Leadership analyzed data about 6,731 managers from 38 countries to find out. Their findings were consistent across the sample: empathy is positively related to job performance.
Managers who show more empathy (not just have empathy, but act on it) toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses. By their bosses! Not by the reports directly receiving the empathy, but by the person the manager reports to. The researchers also speculate that empathetic leaders effectively build and maintain relationships—which they cite as a vital part of high-performing businesses worldwide.
Empathy stimulates innovation.
While empathy is often regarded as a soft skill (and not particularly pertinent in the world of business), Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believes it’s a wellspring for innovation (as well as a necessity for CEOs). Innovation, he explains, comes from “one’s ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs.” And that’s exactly what empathy supplies.
“Most people think empathy is just something you reserve for your life and your family and your friends, but the reality is that it’s an existential priority of a business,” Nadella said in a Bloomberg interview last year.
He asserts that CEOs should be both empathetic and confident (but also willing to learn). Given that Microsoft’s stock price has more than doubled since he took over the company in 2014, I think he might be on to something here.
So, how do we cultivate more empathy at work?
More than half of employees struggle to demonstrate empathy (however, eight in 10 of them are open to empathy skills training). Businessolver offers a template for your workplace called the “Empathy Manifesto,” but here are a few tactical tips the report also provides …
1. Acknowledge individual needs: According to the study, employees and CEOs agree that the top empathetic behaviors are understanding and/or respecting the need for time off and for flexible working hours.
2. Advocate for your employees: Employees also cited more traditional benefits (like insurance, retirement contributions and paid parental leave) as empathetic, and said that lowering costs was the most empathetic practice related to benefits.
3. Have face-to-face conversations: Nine in 10 of the study’s respondents rated face-to-face conversations and team meetings as the most empathetic way to communicate. Men cited recognition for accomplishments as empathetic, while women emphasized collaboration and one-on-one conversations.
(Notice that all of those activities focused more on supporting individuals, rather than initiating team-building activities, which tends to be a popular approach.)
One final aspect I would anecdotally add is to have empathy for your customers. Talk to them. Understand who they are, what they care about, what keeps them up at night, and how your product or service makes their lives better.
But it all starts from within. Foster empathy internally, and you’ll be better at empathizing externally with the people you're in business to serve.
By Brianna Valleskey
Look, I totally get it — “authentic leadership” sounds like the latest, trendiest, buzziest, fluffiest idea to come out of Silicon Valley.
But after the fallout of events like Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress for Facebook’s failure to protect user data, Theranos CEO Elizabeth being accused of fraud, and former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick arguing with an Uber driver (just weeks after a highly publicized sexual harassment allegation by a former engineer), this concept is more important than ever. We need to demand more honesty and courage from ourselves and our leaders. We must do better.
Fostering authenticity as a business leader, however, is complex. As London Business School professor of organizational behavior Herminia Ibarra explains in a Harvard Business Review article, people in leadership roles sometimes struggle with maintaining a balance.
“To be authoritative, you privilege your knowledge, experience, and expertise over the team’s, maintaining a measure of distance,” she says in the HBR piece. “To be approachable, you emphasize your relationships with people, their input, and their perspective, and you lead with empathy and warmth.”
Personally, any leader who works at being approachable automatically earns my respect (and therefore, my adherence to their authority). But I recognize that particular insight comes from focus group of one. So I’ll explore the topic further.
The Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center recently held a panel about this very topic, featuring two badass female leaders: Meredith Davis, Head of Communications for The League, and Sara DeForest, VP of Marketing at HYP3R.
(Full disclosure: Sara is my boss. She’s a phenomenal, fearless leader and recently wrote a piece about her approach to authentic leadership that you should definitely check out.)
The panel was pretty casual, but there were some powerful takeaways. Here’s what I learned.
Know who you are.
This isn’t just about your name, or your gender, or your job title, or your marital status, or your credit score, or the number of times you’ve rewatched all nine seasons of “The Office.”
This is about your soul.
“It all starts with know what your values are: Who are you? What is your mission?” Sara said during the panel. “Knowing what you stand for.”
There are three important elements to this statement: Who you are, what you stand for, and what your purpose is on Earth.
Who are you? Is your ideal Saturday spent painting miniature Warhammer models? Awesome! Are you a restless, wanderlust-filled traveler? Very cool. Do you love Soulcycle? Fine! I don’t care! Just embrace it! And--more importantly--be honest with yourself about it.
Next is what you stand for. Is there an enduring idea (or ideas) that drive your day-to-day actions?
I believe that words are the most powerful tool we have--capable of rallying people to war and making them yearn for peace. I believe that black lives matter. I believe in women’s rights, LGTB rights, workers rights, refugee rights, clean energy, recycling, teaching art in schools, universal background checks; that simply believing in someone can change their life; that the most important person to love in the world is yourself; and that a little humanity can go a long way.
Finally, why are you here?
The fun thing about purpose is that it can be whatever you want it to, like …
Meredith knows her purpose. Without skipping a beat, she declared that her mission is to mission is to give a voice to sex, dating and relationships to people in her generation. Boom! I love it. Short and sweet. Your life’s purpose doesn’t have to be complicated. It just has to be true to you.
Deep in my soul I know that my purpose on earth is to write and to help people. That’s it. And a lot of things fit those criteria, so I’m able to stay committed to my mission and still remain flexible in my approach.
Or, instead of having one overarching life purpose, your life may be comprised of a series of mini-missions. That’s ok, too! Also, your mission can absolutely change over time. What’s purposeful for you today may not be in ten years. Go with the flow. The universe tends to unfold as it should.
Be that person.
So you know who you are--good! But are you able to outwardly convey that? If you can’t communicate who you are effectively, Sara explained, it’s going to hinder productivity. But being true to yourself self doesn’t mean being constantly vulnerable or spilling your guts. It involves exercising different facets of your persona in various situations.
“I feel like people are always surprised when they find out I do comedy, but it’s an aspect of who I am,” Sara said. “There are different parts of our personalities that flourish in different environments. Who I am on stage isn’t necessarily who I am at work, but it’s still all me.”
Sara added that you also need to ensure whatever work environment you choose to be in also aligns with you you are. She consistently invites our team to come to her comedy shows, and I think it’s amazing (both because I love comedy and seeing everyone’s human side creates stronger bonds).
Meredith made a great point that sometimes being purpose-driven can also mean putting your company’s goals before your own personal mission. She cited an example from her first year at The League, when she owned the customer support function. The dating app was getting a lot of emails from the LGBT community, who wanted to be able view both men and women in the community (but select different preferences for men than for women).
“I wanted to help! Let’s change the roadmap and make this happen!” she exclaimed. “But I realized that we only had so many engineers, and that the long-term goals of the company needed to not focus on this at the moment.”
Instead of pushing the product team to make a change that aligned with her goals, she choose to be relentlessly scrappy and help those users find a workaround. THAT is dedication to both your company and your customers, ladies and gentlemen.
Build (really) genuine relationships.
For Meredith, this is all about the little things--like having your coworkers know what you like or what you do on the weekends. She encourage managers to really understand what their direct reports find valuable.
“I think having authentic leadership in a company also means allowing people to progress in what they really want to be doing,” she said. “Maybe they don’t want to be at your company for another year or two. So we sit down with them and help them make career plans, while they’re still at The League.”
This is super smart, and something LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman talks about in his book, “The Alliance.” Millennials are mobile; they probably won’t spend 15 or 30 years with your company. But if you’re willing to invest in their overall career path (rather than only what you can get from them in this current role), you’ll actually foster more loyalty and trust. It shows team members that you care about them as people (and not just work machines).
Another idea Meredith brought up was Creative Fridays, where team members can work on whatever creative things they like that are related to The League (Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin talk about a similar idea in their 2004 IPO letter). I think this is great (despite the large amount of criticism surrounding the idea) because it brings an element of autonomy to a person’s role.
Meredith also talked about being positive, acting as a cheerleader for everyone in your organization and encouraging people to share ideas. In the same breath, however, she emphasized the importance of staying grounded. Sara echoed that sentiment, adding that staying grounded involves surrounding yourself with genuine people and making sure you have a good support network of people who will give you honest feedback.
“For me, building a great network starts with my team: making sure we have a good culture, making sure we make time for brainstorming sessions,” Sara said. “I learn a lot from my team. We all have different skill sets, and I think we compliment each other that way.”
Hearing that from your boss = #AlllTheFeels. [Cut to a shot of me in the audience literally holding back tears.]
Grow, evolve, adapt
Authentic leadership is an ongoing process. Organizational behavior professor Herminia Ibarra highlights this in her HBR article.
“The only way we grow as leaders is by stretching the limits of who we are—doing new things that make us uncomfortable but that teach us through direct experience who we want to become,” Herminia shares. “Such growth doesn’t require a radical personality makeover. Small changes—in the way we carry ourselves, the way we communicate, the way we interact—often make a world of difference in how effectively we lead.
Sara specifically touched on adapting to diverse communication styles. She’s a words-based person (like me), accustomed to digesting information through the written word. Our CEO, however, is very much a visual learner. So Sara had to learn how to communicate what our team was working on and accomplishing in a very visual way, even getting as granular as learning how to make incredibly aesthetically pleasing presentation slides. But that’s what it takes. And that’s how you stay true to your authenticity but also accommodate others.
As with all growth, a journey of authentic leadership means you may not recognize the person you were a year or two ago
“Being a leader evolves over time. The leader I was three years ago isn’t the leader I am today. And the leader I was three years ago isn’t the leader The League needs today,” Meredith said.
A final tidbit from Meredith that I loved:”Empowering leadership in all facets of an organization is really crucial.” Preach, woman. My boss (Sara) does a marvelous job of entrusting each member of our team to truly own their work and be an expert in what they do. That combination of confidence and respect from a leader is magic, and motivates me to do my best work every day. I highly recommend it.
By: Brianna Valleskey
How do we develop more creativity in our organizations? Most people think of creativity fairly narrowly and only in terms of art or science, but Ed Catmull believes otherwise.
“Creativity is the process by which we solve problems,” said the president of Pixar Animation Studios, “whether that’s through a story, marketing or a relationships between partners and customers.”
Ed is a 20-year veteran of Pixar, as well as the author of “Creativity, Inc.” His ideas challenge conventional wisdom about the creative process, and he was kind enough to share some important creativity hacks during his INBOUND session last week. I thought they were more than worthy of a dedicated blog post.
Ed Catmull’s Advice for Empowering Creative Thinking
Increasing creativity means removing roadblocks.
People often ask how someone can be more creative. Ed said that a better question is, “What management, cultural and other roadblocks are getting in front of being creative?"
By the time Disney purchased Pixar in 2006, it hadn’t produced a major box office hit since “The Lion King” more than a decade earlier. The studio suffered from a lack of introspection, Ed explained. Different organizational groups (marketing, finance, technical, filmmakers, etc.) within the company had different values ― as they should ― but the values of the production team prevailed. While production, itself, was optimized, that structure forced much of the creative strategies to fail.
That forced alignment around the values of the production teams acted as a roadblock for the studio’s creativity. To help solve this problem, the studio leadership (including Ed, Steve Jobs and John Lassiter) created a “story trust” (more on that below) for the Disney team to help prioritize creative values and reinvigorate the team’s process. A few years after that, Disney finally produced its next box office smash, “Tangled.”
Ego is a creativity blocker.
Another secret to increasing organizational creativity is to remove ego from the process. The idea for Disney’s story trust came from Pixar’s own “brain trust,” a group that comes together after the first screening of a new film.
They trust operates on a few very specific principles: It’s peer to peer. Filmmaker to filmmaker. The purpose is to remove management and hierarchy from the room so that the director can make decisions; not Ed or (Pixar Chief Creative Officer) John Lasseter. The filmmakers are expected to give and listen to honest notes. Removing perceived oversight allows directors to actually hear what people have to say.
Another principle of the brain trust is to carefully observe the filmmaker dynamics: Does everyone contribute? Does somebody dominate? Are they trying to help each other? Is someone afraid to speak? Of course, the brain trust doesn’t function perfectly. But when it does, Ed said, magic happens.
“And by magic, I mean that you feel ego leave the room,” he said. “All the attention is on the problem.”
This is important. Removing ego allows ideas come and go without people becoming attached to them, thus enabling the creative process to flow.
New ideas are fragile. Treat them as such.
Ed claims that all Pixar movies suck at first.
“I don’t mean that because we’re being modest or self-effacing. I mean that in the sense that they suck,” he said with a chuckle.
The first version of “Up,” for example, involved a castle floating in the sky. A king lived there with his two sons, and the people in the castle were at war with the people on the ground. The sons didn’t like each other very much. They somehow go overboard and end up on the ground (in enemy territory), and then come across a large bird. According to Ed, this version sucked. The only thing that came from it was the bird and the word “up.”
The second version had a 20-minute intro. Carl floats away in the house with a boy scout. They land on a lost Russian dirigible that’s painted underneath to look like clowns. That version didn’t work, either. The fourth version brought back the large bird and introduced the films main antagonist, Charles Muntz. The main plot driver, however, was that the bird’s eggs gave everlasting life to anyone who ate them (which is what Muntz was after). The film still wasn’t working. They lost the eggs, whittled down the 20-minute prologue to four and a half minutes of pure gold and produced one of the most-beloved animated movies of all time. (Admit it: That intro made you tear up.)
“This path [of that film] was wildly unpredictable,” Ed said. “New ideas are often fragile and off track. We had to protect that crew while they working on something that wasn’t good, trusting that their motivations were going after the right thing.”
Don’t be afraid of the wilderness.
Ed Catmull probably knew Steve Jobs better than almost anybody else. After he left Apple, Steve purchased the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm (where Ed worked) in 1986 and renamed it “Pixar.” He was also running NeXT computer at the time. Ed watched Steve experience countless failures during this time, but he also watched him learn an incredible amount. Steve’s empathy changed dramatically over that time, Ed said, enabling him to become the person who returned to Apple and made it great.
“This was a lot like the hero’s journey,” Ed said, “where the hero is cast out of the kingdom, wanders in the wilderness, learns and lot and then returns to make the kingdom a better place.”
The hero’s journey refers a classical story arc, and some of our favorite tales follow this template: Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, The Wizard of Oz and even The Princess Bride. Ed’s point here is to not be afraid to go into the wilderness (or wander or get lost or attempt something that seems impossible), as it almost always ends up being a period of immense growth.
Believe that what you’re doing makes a difference.
Ed’s final piece of advice for fostering more creativity in our organizations was simple: put purpose behind everything you do.
“If you believe, as I do, that your actions make a difference, this means you can modify your reality. You can change the future,” He said, adding that he hoped everyone in the audience would do so.
From all of this, I think we can definitively say that enabling creativity is critical to the future success of any company. I challenge all business leaders to let creativity run wild within their organizations ― to infinity and beyond.
P.S. Ed started his session by saying that Pixar does not make movies for children. The studio makes movies that are intended for adults (but still accessible to everyone). People forget that children live in an adult world, he said, and they’re built for figuring things out. They want to figure things out, and that process of figuring things out is also creative. I found this incredibly clever.
See below for a few books that specifically tackle the topic of creativity.
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
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...
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.