We vote for the politicians we want every three years. #tick
We vote for the journalists we want every day. #click
They’re not really values unless you apply them when it’s inconvenient.
— Kim Goodwin
I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of start-up teams as they work through the process of articulating and documenting their shared values.
When we talk about “values” in this context it is usually shorthand for three different questions that need to be answered:
Mission - why do we exist?
Values - what do we believe?
Vision - what could we be?
It’s always a humbling, invigorating and heart breaking exercise.
Humbling, because we quickly realise how difficult it is to succinctly describe what always starts out feeling self evident.
Invigorating, because stepping away from the grind of business-as-usual to consider the “why” is usually an excellent way to remind ourselves that the pain is worth the gain.
But perhaps most importantly heart breaking, because we realise how much of what we inevitably begin with when we start putting it down in words is mostly meaningless...
Disrupt. Empower. Enable.
Beautiful. Easy to use. Loved.
Impactful. Purposeful. Positive.
Customer centric. Design led. Fact-based.
Leadership. Collaboration. Innovation.
Integrity. Accountability. Diversity.
Simple. Powerful. World Class.
Here are three questions that I've found can help filter the signal from the noise…
Who believes the opposite?
First, flip it around and see if it still makes sense.
If we believe that our differentiator is that we will create a product that is beautiful and easy to use, we should think about who we believe is intentionally building something ugly and unnecessarily complicated?
If we say that our customers come first, we need to point to those who genuinely don’t care and put them last.
If we say our policy is “don't be a dick” (and think that explains it all in as much detail as is required) it's useful to consider the team who are intentionally dicks and what advantages that might give them.
If we can’t identify anybody who believes the opposite then we likely haven’t identified a useful value or a competitive advantage. We've just uncovered the table stakes.
The opposite of a useful value is often itself a useful value.
(Interestingly, explicitly stating the opposite value often makes the thing that we're actually trying to articulate clearer and easier for others to understand.)
Think about algebra. If we have the same value in the numerator and denominator then they cancel each other out.
XY / Y = X
It’s not enough to believe in Y. Everybody believes in Y. We need to find the X. That is, the differentiator that sets us apart, makes us memorable and remarkable.
Is this a hope or a method?
Next, ask if what we're describing is a destination or a route.
Everybody thinks senseless meetings waste everybody’s time. Very few teams find a way to work together that eliminates the need for them.
Everybody says they want to hire a team of people smarter than them. Not many can articulate the specific reasons why those great people will be tempted to join this specific team or have the recruitment process that will attract anything other than a bunch of people who look and behave a lot like the existing team does.
To usefully articulate what we want to be, we need to go beyond describing the result we’d like. We need to own the process we’ll use.
Ultimately our values are not what we write down, they are what we do everyday. Our revealed priorities expose our stated priorities. The way we act trumps the words we say every time1 - e.g. our diet is not something we're "on", it's what we consistently put in our mouths.
What does this cost?
What’s our defining characteristic? It’s probably also our biggest vulnerability?2
Finally, find the downside and acknowledge it. Document the “however...”
We often worry more about appearing not to have problems than about achieving our desired outcomes, and therefore avoid recognising that our own mistakes and/or weaknesses are causing the problems. Understanding our vulnerabilities is much more likely to help us avoid our downfall than listing our strengths.
Maybe we’re relentlessly positive - everything is awesome. And as a result we're probably unlikely to hear negative or potentially constructive feedback because nobody ever wants to be the first one to call the emperor naked.
Maybe we’re loyal. And as a result we hold a grudge, and can be slow to forgive or forget people who have behaved poorly in the past or to acknowledge where past friendships have deteriorated to the point where they would be most usefully abandoned.
Maybe we’re fact-based. And as a result sometimes over analyse and get bogged down in difficult decisions, rather than relying on instinct to make good fast choices when needed.
Again, if we can’t quickly identify the downside then we probably haven’t found a particularly useful differentiator - because if there is only upside then why wouldn’t everybody do the same thing?
If we can articulate what our beliefs will cost us, and accept that we are prepared to bear that cost, then we’ve probably found something that is really important and uncommon.
Asking these three questions makes the whole process much harder but ultimately produces better results.
That’s worth it, right?
This idea shared by Ryan from Timely is great advice for what to do next, after you've got a first draft of your values:
If you really want to be great at something, you have to truly care about it. If you want to be great in a particular area, you have to obsess over it. A lot of people say they want to be great, but they’re not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve greatness. They have other concerns, whether important or not, and they spread themselves out. That’s totally fine. After all, greatness is not for everybody.
— Kobe Bryant 3
Focus is underrated. Maybe that’s because being super focussed makes you a bit annoying. Annoyingly successful … but still. Frustratingly, it does seem to be a recurring pattern amongst those who achieve remarkable things. The most successful founders I know are the ones who are focussed almost exclusively on their own venture and who are politely uninterested in others’ ventures.
Focus is difficult. You can be busy or remarkable but not both. You have to choose. Focus means saying no. And, most of us are terrible at saying no.4 The hard thing is deciding what not to do. Then the really hard thing is actually not doing those things.
Focus is exhausting. It always takes longer than you think. Trade Me was 7 years from start to sale. Vend was 12 years.5 Timely was 9½ years. Xero took just under 6 years to go from IPO to $1B valuation (those early years are mostly forgotten, definitely seldom mentioned in the official histories, especially when they are written by Australians). We’re all lucky that most founders don’t appreciate this reality in advance, otherwise they might not bother to start at all.6
Focus has a very wide turning circle, which can be soul destroying in the moment. The scarcest resource at most start-ups isn’t cash, it’s time.7 We’ve been brought up to believe we can do anything. It’s a powerful and important message. But, many of us have mistakenly interpreted that to mean we can do everything.
(See: Anything vs Everything).
We want to have our cake, get lots of likes on the photo of our cake, eat it all, and then still have visible ribs afterwards.
Many years ago, when our kids were little, we took a family holiday to Noosa in Queensland, Australia. One day, walking in the National Park, we stopped to watch the surfers in the break below us. The waves were big and seemed to me to be crashing quite close to the rocks, but they made it look effortless and fun.
My wife suggested that we learn to surf.
Then she thought about it a bit more and corrected herself:
I’d love to be able to surf, but I don’t want to have to learn to surf
As always, the question isn’t: What can you be great at?
Before you even have that option the question is:
Top Three is a weekly collection of things I notice in 2021. I’m writing it for myself, and will include a lot of half-formed work-in-progress, but please feel free to follow along and share it if it’s interesting to you.
See "Culture beyond platitudes" in this talk by Ben Horowitz:
Actually exactly 12 years and 1 day to be precise!