Topic: Inside Printfection

How the best companies leapfrog their competitors

My co-founder, Casey, wrote a great blog post about why listening to the experts in your industry may not be the best idea. So the next obvious question is, who should you listen to? Listening and learning from someone, anyone, is a great way to jump ahead without having to make every mistake yourself. In fact, it would take a lifetime to learn everything these experts know on your own. The obvious choices would be mentors, friends, fellow employees, etc. Not to mention, listening to an expert in your field isn’t the worst thing ever, every once in a while. But I would suggest there is an alternative which trumps all those a thousand fold.

Listen to experts in every field but your own. And I mean every field. This includes other types of businesses such as a 100+ year old company, or a company which produces a physical product (if you don’t). Or how about that new cutting edge genetics company? Read some medical blogs, marriage counseling blogs (doesn’t matter if you’re married), architect blogs. Read about the arts, space travel, psychology, traveling, a zen lifestyle, etc. The list is really endless. And don’t just find a random medical company or a random traveling blog, find the best blog, the best company. Find the most cutting edge, or the most respected, find the leader in that industry. Then listen, learn and copy them.

Bring what they do best into your company and your industry. Learn how to adapt their practices to your goals. While everybody in your industry is out copying the leader, always one step behind, you’re bringing in something new. You can leapfrog the current trends, build your own path, while still following tried and true methods. You’ll be amazed at how the owner of the leading local coffee shop is already doing all of these supposedly new ways to run a company, preached by your industry. Or how that old geezer running that supposedly outdated company has more insight and understanding of your business than you’ll have for years.

Bottom line, there are a lot of really smart people out there. Don’t constrain yourself to one small industry. You’ll be amazed at what you can learn from the leaders in completely unrelated fields.

Why titles hinder your growth

Everybody has one. Director of this, manager of that, chief of something else. Every person, in every company has a title. And they all suck. Every single one. I could create a list right now, as could you, of every possible title a company gives to its employees. Aside from a few companies, this list is set. There’s one CEO, a few chiefs, directors, managers, etc. There’s one way to structure a company. Sure you can change around the org structure a bit but once you’ve taken that title, that’s what you do, that’s it. Your only hope of growing in the company is taking on another title.

But what if you don’t fit in a title? What if your skills combine two positions, or three? Or don’t fit into any title, what then? What if you have one title and see an opportunity, yet it falls under someone else’s title, what do you do? Even if you’re an extremely proactive A-type personality, I guarantee you’ll think twice before going outside your title. Or worse yet, you’ll subconsciously limit your thinking to within your title. And if even the best of us fall prey to our title constraints how hard do you think it’ll be for that new hire to break out of his or her title?

Companies hire for titles. They say, “We need a director of marketing”, so they go find themselves a director of marketing. It’s completely ass backwards. Sure the intention is good, we need more marketing resources, but it’s a cop out. It’s the easy answer. We need to do more marketing so let’s hire someone for a set position in marketing. It allows the company to ignore the real reason they’re hiring.

Why not reverse it? Why not focus on the need first, outside of titles or departments. Then hire for that need. The title shouldn’t come up once during the hiring process. Hire someone with a passion for marketing and say, tell me what you’re amazing at and own it. Titles attempt to give ownership but they’re horrible at it. Not to mention, companies are dynamic and fluid, their needs changing constantly, especially the smaller ones. What happens when you need more resources in a different area? Do you hire for a different title each time your needs change?

Forget titles, forget departments, focus on your employees’ passion and let them be amazing without the handcuffs.

The two simple ways to win your market

There are two main ways companies compete in a market. By price or by value. Either you increase your value and thus, are able to charge the same or more than your competition and win customers. Or you lower your prices, cut  costs, improve inefficiencies and beat your competition by offering the same solution for less.

New markets start on value. A company solves a new problem or solves an old problem a completely new way (think Ford, Apple, Twitter). No one cares if they spend more to use the service or buy the product, the value is so high it really doesn’t matter what the price is. At this point pricing usually comes down to a guess by the company or some perception of the new value, also a guess.

Then the competition starts. Other companies come in, provide the same value as that first company but cheaper. They might provide some new value here or there but the main focus is to copy and cut pricing. This turns the whole market into a pricing war with little to no innovation.

And finally, someone innovates again. The problem is solved yet again, new value is provided, pricing is meaningless. It’s okay to compete at any stage of this cycle. If you can provide a service for cheaper, go for it. If you can add value, do that. The question is, do you know which one you are? They are two very different mentalities and two very different strategies. You can’t do both.

An easy litmus test is to ask yourself, “Do I/ Can I  provide 100 times more value than my competitor?” If you do, then go crazy on value. If not, focus on your pricing as you wont win on value.

Why good companies focus on the lifestyle behind their product

People don’t buy products, they buy experiences or values or lifestyles. They purchase what the item represents, not what it is. They’ll buy a BMW because it represents luxury, or maybe because it is luxurious and they value that type of lifestyle. Whatever the product is, they’re purchasing it because it fits into a larger personal ideal they have.

If you’re selling your product as is, without understand the larger value behind it, you’re selling yourself short. You’re only touching on the surface values of your product and losing out on all the emotion and larger picture reasons. Which exist whether you conciously acknowlege them or not.

GoPro does an amazing job of selling a lifestyle, not their product. Their product merely fits into the lifestyle. Take a look at their latest ad and think about how it makes you feel.

What lifestyle or value does your product or service represent?

Simplicity starts from within

Simplicity is usually a focus of customer centric projects. Make your website so easy you don’t need help pages. Your marketing message should be so easy you can pitch it in one sentence or one elevator ride. Only focus on the critical features and prevent feature bloat. How this is actually accomplished is even more important though.

The best way to build a simple, focused product is by first building a simple, focused team. Create a very simple vision your entire team understands and can get behind. Give them simple tools and simple focuses. Get rid of feature lists and bug lists. In fact, get rid of any list longer than a few immediately actionable items. Get rid of unnecessary services or processes. Get rid of titles and hierarchy. The simpler you can make your team and your company, the easier it will be to create the ideal product.

Talk to your team about simplicity inside and out. Their focus should be on simplicity in everything they do, not just what they create. Enlist them to help you cut the fat. It’s very easy for everybody to get caught up in unnecessary tasks or get overloaded by the sheer number of things to do. As long as you have a good vision, allow your employees to ignore everything beyond their immediate goals.

Simple does not mean easy. This is much harder to create than a complex company. But the ROI on simplicity is definitely worth the effort.

You can’t quantify everything

You can track your registrations, revenue, lifetime value of each customer. You can figure out if a marketing campaign should be repeated or how many trade shows you should go to each year. In fact there are thousands of things you can track within your company. Yet there’s one decision you can’t really base on the numbers, repositioning.

That’s what makes startups so fun. They’re doing something new, they’re doing something no one else has done. Or they’re doing it differently, better. They don’t usually have data to back their decisions. And if they do, it’s one of those fun spreadsheets which shows how taking just .5% of the market will give them $100M in yearly revenue. Yet even without any supporting data they still go full steam ahead, ready to take on the world.

But how about if you’re not a startup? What if you’ve been in business for years, how do you justify a reposition then? You have no data to prove it’s better than what you’re currently doing. You might have a few customers in your new market but that’s nothing compared to the thousands or hundreds of thousands of customers you currently have. You can’t prove the new revenue will supersede your current revenue. You can’t prove your new market will even like you. And if you can prove the new vision is better, then you’ve already repositioned.

So how do you reposition? Same as a startup, you just do. You sit down, figure out what you absolutely love to do, and do it. Of course you want to take into account as much data as you can. Is there anybody out there who will give you money right now who resides in the new market? Are you in this new market? What part of your current customer base fits into your new market? How knowledgeable are you about this new problem you’re trying to solve? Why don’t you like the current problem you had been solving? How do you repostion without running out of money? The list is really endless. But at the end of the day, it’s not possible to absolutely prove one way or the other. There’s no right answer. You just have to go with your gut.

Have you ever repositioned a company or been part of a company which has repositioned? How’d it go?

Culture is not a document

You can’t create your culture through meetings. Even if you do more of them. You can’t create it through ping pong tables or weekly happy hours. You don’t create culture through a document, or a presentation, or by doing one nice thing a day. You create culture by doing all the right things all the time.

Every interaction you have with fellow employees, no matter how small, is a huge opportunity to create the culture you want in your company. If you’re rude, or distant, or unwilling to help, then that’s the culture you’ll have, no matter what the culture document says. On the flip side, if you’re excited to help, always 5 minutes early, always prepared, always positive, you’re culture will look drastically different. Asking, “what can I do to help?” will create a much bigger impact than a company lunch each week.

It’s easy to write down what you want to be and forget about it. You feel like you’ve done your job and you can simply point each employee to your document so they know what the culture should look like. But your culture is your habits. What you do, who you are. It doesn’t matter what any document says.

Each person in the company creates their own culture. And each person is effected by everybody else’s. The combination of these individual cultures creates the overall company culture. It’s an organic thing, always growing, always changing. All you can do is focus on yourself and ensure the people you work with already embody the culture you want to be a part of.

So what’s your individual culture?

Give away ownership

The most important thing you can give your employees is ownership. This is their company, not  just yours. At some point during the process of growing your company you gave it away. Our, you should have. As you grow, you’ll never be able to make every decision, or even know about every decision. It’s up to your employees to decide how the company grows. All you get to do is occasionally provide some influence and help point the way. You can either embrace this fact, or fight it.

During interviews, the number one reason I’m told why employees left their last job was they weren’t given ownership. They had no power over their job or over the company in general. When someone has no ownership, they’re not going to work very hard. Instead of getting a 10x boost from each new employee you only get a 1.5x, if that. Because of this, you’re cutting your legs off every time you give an order or make a decision for somebody.

If you are able to give up ownership, the return is unreal. You’ll have way more fun working with peers versus drones. The excitement you’ll all create building a company together, where everybody owns their success, is electric. Your stress will evaporate and your personal output will skyrocket.

You know you’re successful when you can leave for a year and when you return, your company has grown above and beyond your vision. I’m not advocating for year long sabbaticals, but this should always be in the back of your mind.

And this starts with employee number one.

Complexity is easy

Complexity is easy to create. Just add all that new functionality your customers want. Give them that 5th shipping option or payment method. Allow them full control over your system and let them decide what to do with it.

It’s easy to create complex systems because you’ve removed yourself from the decision making. You’re now putting all the decisions on your customers. They have to know the best way to use your complex application now. They have to pick the right shipping option or understand whether to do A or B first.

The problem should be evident… they have to make the decisions. You’re supposed to be the expert. You’re supposed to know everything there is to know about your industry and your application, yet you’re letting them make all the decisions. Your customers don’t know anything about your industry or your application, that’s why they’re coming to you.

Simplicity is hard. It’s much harder to write a short sentence than a long one. Much harder to only have the right functionality than all the functionality. But if you’re able to do this. If you’re able to take on the responsibility of making the decisions, you’ll end up with something your customers would never have come up with on their own. And this is why they’ll love you.

Your value is your simplicity, not your features.

Focus on the little wins

Everything you do should be focused on success. One of the questions you should ask every employee, all the time, is “Was it successful?” You should do this for several reasons. First, it allows you to know what to repeat. It creates a deadline and forces a quantifiable action and result. Otherwise it’s very easy for projects to drag on or to have no idea what works and what doesn’t.

Second, it helps everybody understand what the vision looks like in real life. Visions are great, but you can’t execute on a vision, at least not daily. The better framework you can create to help employees understand what success looks like in the flesh, the easier it will be for them to attain it.

And third, it allows you, and them, to enjoy the successes. In a growing company, there’s always a million things to do. It’s very easy to do one task or project, then immediately jump to the next one. This gets tiring and kills moral. The more you can take time and celebrate your successes, the more you want to keep getting them. Those high level revenue goals are essential but it’s so hard for an individual employee to feel ownership over those numbers.

A much better way for them to feel ownership and pride is through their individual successes along the way.Help your employees understand what success looks like, how to quantify it, and most importantly why they should even care about the small wins. The only way to hit your big revenue goals is through smaller successes. The more little wins you get the bigger the snowball becomes.