“Live in the future, then build what’s missing.” - Paul Graham (source)
Paul Graham offers another doozy of a blog post about startup ideas. Like his usual writings, be prepared that you’ll probably need to go take a walk, or a nap, or maybe even go to church after reading this one. (If you haven’t read it yet, this means I highly recommend consuming it.)
I was particularly compelled by the quote above from the article – referencing that entrepreneurs (particularly the best ones) are people that live in the future, and build products or services that make that future a reality. Box founder Aaron Levie summarized Graham’s thesis saying “Startups = (What the future looks like) - (What we have today)”. Whether that be applied to Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates (to name a few wildly successful visionary founders), Graham hypothesizes that it’s really about having the confidence, foresight or gut-feeling about what is coming and the ability to execute on building tools that bring that future to the masses.
While Graham offers a relatively simplistic approach – build something you are already living – there are a few steps in between (obviously). In my opinion, the most important step is translating that vision into a future your team and employees can live with you. It’s easy to overlook, but startups are hard enough as it is that if you can’t translate this future – and by translate I mean more than words, but a way to live this future with you – then you risk having an ‘untranslatable’ vision. For us at Zaarly, we quickly found out that some of our most crucial advances in our product, our processes and our culture occurred when it was clear the team was truly living in this future together.
Just how do you get the team behind this future vision that you live in? Well, it’s simple: just start integrating what the company does into the culture. (Okay, it’s slightly more complicated than that.) Here’s a couple lessons we learned about how to be sure to help the rest of the team live that future with you and that future is thoroughly integrated into your company’s culture:
Get your team to use your product or service. It seems obvious right? It’s so much easier to build something if you actually love it or what it to work. We learned quickly that one of the best ways to get our team to use the Zaarly product was to give them money to spend on the platform. As soon as someone actually experienced a problem, something wonky in the experience, got the opportunity to talk to another user on the other side of the transaction or found something they loved, it was like magic happened. If your team isn’t living in that future you are trying to build regularly, find ways to help make that a reality. Cash works (we give our employees Z-credits to spend on the platform); guilt works (we encourage everyone to post their experiences on our internal bulletin board); and shame works if you can’t get the first two to work (“Hey, X, Y and Z haven’t used their Z-credits yet – give them some ideas on what to buy or what you’d like as a gift! ;-)”).
Use your product for company needs. One of my favorite entrepreneur/investors, Bill Lee, scheduled a meeting with me… and did so with his company’s app Twist. “I take more meetings this way, because it is customer feedback,” said Bill. At Zaarly, we found our caterer, our bartender and our photographer for our holiday party using Zaarly. That whole ‘eat your own dog food’ phrase seems appropriate here. Turns out you start to show others how to live in the future when you actually live in it. If your team members want to use something else that is easier, then normal people probably won’t use your product in the future (good lesson!)
Don’t let your current product get in the way of the future. When we were building Zaarly, we initially thought it was gonna be sorta difficult to live in the future (because we hadn’t created our product yet). Turned out you can’t let that stop you. We turned to another platform to let us live in the future: twitter and facebook. We were building a way to find people to help you with something – so we took our efforts to the social media airwaves. One day, we thought: “We need someone to help us film something.” So we asked on twitter and facebook – low and behold, someone answered our “request.” We were living in the future even though we knew our product was missing and would make this experience so much better… but don’t let today’s reality stop you from living in that future. Graham’s point isn’t about hoverboards or time travel – it’s about a world where the mass market hasn’t caught onto this future trend that you see. It’s a process to get there, but don’t let that stop you.
Find a way to have the family members of your team use the product or service. Having your team live in the future is one thing, but having their family live in the future will really help you build for that future. At the company holiday party last year, I had a 90 minute conversation with the spouse of one of our lead developers. Turns out, her feedback was so damn good – because she’d actually used the product (because she was the one who spent the Z-credits). She wasn’t invested in what we’d done, why we’d done it and didn’t know how we planned to evolve the product. She just used it and knew what didn’t work and what did. The lesson we learned is that sometimes the message isn’t as clear when filtered by an employee – so if you can get their family or spouse to tell you directly, you may be surprised by what you learn. Family feedback isn’t colored by the lens of being an employee.
Help Desk helps. Wanna know how to make your team realize that a problem really is a problem? Let them man the Help Desk live chat or support email for an afternoon. Turns out after people hear the same feedback a few times, they might recognize that what seemed so intuitive for us tech-company employees, ain’t working for a mechanic in Denver. We implemented something at Zaarly (that I ‘borrowed’ from a prior company) and called it “Listen to the Boss” where everyone gets the chance to be involved in support. It helps crystalize that “future” in real tangible ways.
I wholeheartedly agree that the best companies are creating a world that “should exist” for everyone – even if at the time when they start, it exists for only a few. There were online portals for niche communities before Facebook brought the future mainstream; there were expensive tablets and smart phones before Apple brought it to the masses; and there were flea markets and collectible shops before eBay offered this world to the online community.
But none of those future-seekers who had the spark of an idea would have gotten there alone without bringing their team into that future world while they collectively built what’s missing.
Turns out, you don’t build the future alone. Figure out how to make sure everyone on your own team is there with you.