The Networker’s Dilemma

The Networker’s Dilemma is a problem that I see plaguing lots of different industries, but it is particularly problematic for startups. The thesis is this: overly networked individuals suffer from a lack of honest feedback, which can distract and destroy new initiatives.

It may seem controversial to suggest that people should network less early on, because so much startup advice is about launching early, getting feedback, and meeting people, but I really do believe that there are substantial downsides to being too connected and too networked.   

Problem 1: Honest feedback is even more rare than usual
All that you should want when you are starting out is honest feedback. The best case scenario when you’re starting is that you pitch someone your idea and they actually tell you what they think. As anyone who has ever been pitched an idea will tell you, when an idea is bad, it’s really, really tough to give honest feedback. You don’t want to dishearten somebody who is passionate about what they are doing, and it’s just not fun to make people feel bad.

The incentive to give honest feedback and risk upsetting an overly networked individual is just not there. It’s so much easier ‘forget’ to tell a networker your true feelings about their product so you can stay on their good side. Then when you need a favor later, you haven’t burned any bridges! Gimme those sweet, sweet connections.

When honest feedback becomes even more rare than it traditionally is, it becomes impossible to iterate on your message, product, or anything else.

Problem 2: People will use your product for the wrong reasons
Getting any users is tough. Getting a lot of users is tougher. Getting tons of repeat users is one of the hardest things you can possibly do. You need the stars to align or you need to sell people money at a discount (Groupon) to ramp up your users with a bad product. But, it’s possible to get users because people assume that you’re good at product, just because you’re so well connected.

How many products have you tried because the person behind the product seems well connected? Have you ever tried a product that came out of Y Combinator even though you were actually pretty confused by the product’s purpose?  Have you ever seen lots of other people using something and thought to yourself, “Hmm… what am I missing here? This product doesn’t make sense. But I should use it so that I’m not left behind.” These are some of the signs that you may be paying attention to a product for the wrong reasons.

I’m not going to sling mud about specific examples, but I’m sure you can think of some startups run by networkers that never progressed because their fame brought them their users.

Problem 3: People will join your team because of your connections, not because of your ideas, execution, product, or traction
This one is truly terrifying. Building an early team is really hard, and it should take tons of convincing to get people to work under-market or without salaries because they buy into a company vision. Convincing an early team of all-stars to join you is so hard that many investors will buy into a great team without a great business. And actually, this problem is probably the one that can go either way for you on this list. Build a truly amazing team with your overly-connected network and you may still have a shot of building a great company.

But build a great team for the wrong reasons and you’ll soon have a group of people who are dissatisfied and disheartened with the lack of vision and lack of real growth once your networker bump disappears.

Being able to convince a real human, who doesn’t know you solely as a networker, that they should quit what they are doing and join you is a great sign that you may actually be onto something.

Problem 4: It can make it too easy to raise money
Raising money from investors should be hard. Challenging money is a good sign that the market is well-aligned with the risks of startup investing. If it’s hard to raise money, and you raise money, then you’re probably onto something! Congrats, you’ve been able to convince others that you are in a big enough market, studying an interesting enough problem, with the potential to create a compelling solution.

The problem, of course, is that if you’ve networked yourself too much then you are going to have a slew of people that will recommend you, just because they know you and think of you as a great person, but that doesn’t mean that your idea is any good. I see people recommending great, well-networked people all the time who are working on terrible ideas.

If you make it too easy for yourself to raise money with the wrong business, you’ll soon be searching for a real problem or real solution to work on, while investors start to ponder who they should bring in to replace you.

What’s the right way to think about networking?
Networking is great and no one can build a business alone, but don’t fall into the trap of spending all your time networking. Like most things in life, what you want is to find a healthy balance.

Have fun, take your time, and focus on fostering real relationships that can help you over the long term.

This post hasn’t been full of super actionable advice, so here’s a tidbit for you: Hole up in your dungeon and spend your time building something that is fucking great. Then, when you do feel the urge to get out there, networking will be an accelerant instead of a deterrent.

Stop hiding who you are

One critical lesson that we’ve learned the hard way, is that we shouldn’t hide who we are. Today we try to be open and honest about the size of the company and our goals, but things haven’t always been this way.

A strong start
When Brendan and I first started Wistia, it was pretty darn clear how big the company was. This was easy because there were two of us, we had no website, and we were 22 and 23 (Brendan was the old man). We didn’t think to hide who we were or what we were doing. When we went to startup events, it was two dudes working on a problem. When we first met Ben and Adam, it was just Brendan and I working out of Brendan’s bedroom.

Did our first investors know that it was just the two of us? Yup. Did they come to meetings in our house and sit on a couch at the foot of Brendan’s bed? Yup. Did our first customers know that Brendan slept six feet from we built Wistia? Yup. Okay, cool.

Being over-excited about becoming a “real business”
Shortly thereafter, a very unfortunate thing happened to us: We closed our first round of funding, got an office, and set out to build a “real business.”

Can you guess what happened next? It was time to start having real business meetings. We got fancy titles. We even bought a conference phone for our CONFERENCE ROOM.

Just look at that shitty conference phone. Does it look like we’re running a “real business” yet?

Brendan and I started commuting 25 minutes to our brand new office in Lexington, MA. It was a stupid commute. But we did have our own parking lot! It was boss. There were many times that we would actually have to dig ourselves out after a night’s snowfall so that we could race to beat Adam and Ben to the office, just to show them how serious we were about building a “real business.” 

It should come as no surprise that we stopped referring to the company as a small business being run out of Brendan’s bedroom. Here is our team page from that time:

What do you think when you look at this team page? Do you think that Wistia looks like a huge, successful “real business?” There are probably a slew of other employees not important enough to make it onto this page, right? Wrong.

Get it right
It took us too long to figure out that people could see right through this. What does our old management team page look like? It looks like a very small team pretending to be a big company. It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that if people think you’re a big company, they’ll treat you with more respect.

The reality: everyone wants to do business with people they trust. Customers want to know what they are buying. Partners want to know who they are dealing with. Investors want to believe in the team and opportunity. But if we are being deceptive with our team page, what else could we be being deceptive with?

Raising money made us think that in order to be successful, we needed to be a “real business” when in reality we needed to be true to ourselves. It’s funny to realize that everyone sees through your ruse. It’s even funnier to realize that when you present the honest truth, that we were four dudes working together on a problem we cared about, that people would actually respect our small beginnings.

The first time we were transparent about our size, I was nervous. This is what our team page looked like at that time.

The current rendition of our team page looks like this:

Type d-a-n-c-e on the team page you’ll learn even more about us. Like that we can’t dance.

The more you put forward who you really are, the better people will understand you and the more they will want to get to know you.  They will be more likely to invest in your growth, and even cut you some slack when you fall short.

So when you’re talking to the press, launching your website, editing your Twitter profile, or chatting someone up at a party, cut the shit and be your real self. You will be surprised how much better your crazy idea will be received.

Impressive growth comes from impressive culture

We’ve been putting together a video series at Wistia called How They Work. In it, we go around and interview inspiring businesses about their company culture. Each How They Work is about three minutes long. They are designed to capture just a few of those sweet, sweet nuggets of culture that are drivers of success.

Clover Food Lab is the most recent company to be featured on How They Work. In the last year Clover has expanded from one food truck and 10 employees to five trucks, two restaurants, and about 140 employees.

My favorite thing about Clover other than their delicious chickpea fritter is that they have completely blurred the line between the food and tech industries. They’ve built internal software that runs on iPods to scale up and down with demand. They test and measure everything they do. They even change up what they’re selling on a daily basis by only having digital menus and whiteboards. If they were a software company their story would be incredibly impressive, but for a food business it’s completely mind boggling.

Watch the How They Work for the full story.

Two principles of highly productive teams

One of the major challenges that we’ve gone through in the last year is figuring out how to stay highly productive as our team grew from 5 to 12 people. While we’re still early on in this process, I thought I’d share some of the lessons that we’ve learned so far.

Communication between 12 people is very different from what it was between 6 people, which is really different from when it was between 4 people. Our internal communication mechanisms have had to evolve so that they are less disruptive, more relevant, and more helpful. It’s an ongoing quest to reach the same efficiency of communication we had when it was just Brendan and I in an apartment.

During the last year we’ve found two principles that have helped us to stay focused and productive: “ownership” and “authority.” It took some work to hone in on these two simple principles. Now we manage to achieve them on an ongoing basis.

Defining question: Who is responsible for getting this shit done?

It seems like a simple question but I’ve actually found that it can be really easy to lose focus on this. Everyone wants to help solve the biggest and most important problems. While this is a great intention, responsibility needs to be focused so that the company can stay balanced.  If you don’t know who is responsible, you haven’t clearly defined ownership.

Giving ownership of something to one person doesn’t mean that they are the only person who can work on a particular problem. It just means it’s their ass to get something done, whether they can accomplish it themselves or if they need to enlist the help of others. I’ve found that by giving complete ownership to one person it also forces more clarity over exactly what each person should own and that’s a good thing.

Defining question: Who is the decision maker on this shit?

She who has authority has the final say on an issue. Every team member who has ownership over something (hint. everyone should have ownership over something) should have the authority to act within the boundaries of their ownership. Err… what?!

This is the the anti-micro-management rule. Letting people make their own decisions can be scary. In fact, for the founder of a startup it’s often terrifying. What if they make mistakes? What if they make the same mistakes I’ve made before? Sometimes your team will make the same mistakes that you have, but by giving them the authority to make their own mistakes, you give them the authority to learn from them.

The result is that by letting people get up to speed very quickly, the business will move much faster.

A highly productive team
When I tell people about our approach to team building I often hear the questions like: So you really give up control like that? How do you stop someone from making a mistake? The answer is simple: trust. You have to trust that if you’re building a team of the right, amazing people you can trust them to operate within their own domain.

It doesn’t mean you can’t give feedback about the job they’re doing, you should of course help wherever you can, it just means that you should provide your input and let them make their own decisions. If you’re building a strong team they’ll take your advice, factor it into their own decision making and include it if it makes it easier for them to achieve the objectives of their ownership.

Please prescribe a best path for your product

Please tell me: What is the best way to use your product?

This seems like a simple question, yet there are so many great companies and well-respected entrepreneurs that absolutely fail to make it clear what the best path through their product is. These products continue to thrive because of strong brands, ad budgets, and momentum. But there is so much lost opportunity: the opportunity to create sticky customers, create new markets, and get anyone to pay attention.

How do you fix this problem? Establish a best path.

What’s a best path?
A best path is the way of using the product that is going to provide the maximum amount of value, least amount of stress, and most upside from investment (whether that investment is in dollars or time). It’s the way you’d use your own product if you were trying to solve the most fundamental problem that your product solves.

Why is this even an issue?
A best path is necessary for any product in an industry where there are different approaches to solving the same problem. This flexibility is an upside when taking on customers who already have an established way they want to solve a problem, but it’s a downside for those who don’t know how they want to solve a problem.

Here’s the secret: The reason most people use products is not to do exactly what they were doing before, it’s to take a current process and make it better, more efficient, or more fun. They’re looking for a new way of doing things. Enter the best path.

How do you establish a best path?
There are three basic ways to establish best paths through a product.

Wizards - The vintage approach
This is the most classic example. Long ago in the dawn of Duke Nukem, it became clear that simplifying options when possible would result in less errors and more value. Advanced options were always available, but your new user could easily progress through a wizard without screwing anything up.

Checklists (or gamification) - The vogue approach
LinkedIn popularized this simple and effective approach. Let people do whatever they want, but make it obvious what a successful use of a product looks like. The LinkedIn profile completion percentage provides the expectation that reaching 100 percent maximizes your chance of getting value out of LinkedIn. In their case, they let you do things in any order you like but you always know what the best path looks like.
Design - The hidden approach
Incorporating best paths into the design of a product is the most effective and powerful approach. By putting effort into the structure of your product you can force a best path by default. The iPhone is the most elegant example of a best path being built directly into the design of a product. Almost every single task on the iPhone encourages a best path first and advanced options second.

The best path as competitive advantage
Providing a best path is about taking away guesswork. It’s about encouraging your users to use your product in a particular way so they automatically reap more benefits from their time. Do that, and you and your users will be all set.

Please incorporate a best path into your product, so we can both solve our problems and I can give you some money or time.

Confronting entrepreneurial fears

Being an entrepreneur is all about fear: fear of failing, fear of missing out, fear of making the wrong decision, and even fear of success. The difference between succeeding and failing is how you choose to confront your fears.

The day you quit your job is going to be scary. The day you make your first cold call is going to be scary. The day you pick a price is going to be scary. The day you have to fire someone is going to be scary.

The secret is: It’s okay to be scared. You just have to be more scared of missing an opportunity than you are of actually failing at it. How do you think Obama felt before giving this speech in 2004? I’m sure he was terrified but how could he have passed up the opportunity to speak to the entire nation?

You have to embrace the fear. You have to try. And eventually, just trying matters. And suddenly you’re not afraid anymore.

Trust in t-shirts

In the past two years, Wistia has spent over $6,000 printing more than 400 shirts with our logo and sending them out to customers and friends.  There’s no way to measure what the return for this has been.

Even though I don’t have any statistically significant data to prove it, I’ve always just trusted that sending out t-shirts is a good branding strategy. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen tweets, blog mentions, and flickr photos of people wearing Wistia shirts, but none of this comes close to justifying the cost. However, I still trust that if someone wants to wear the Wistia logo, we’d be crazy not to let them.

Last week, some anecdotal evidence showed me that my faith in the power of t-shirts is justified. Three people separately told me that they saw someone wearing a Wistia shirt in the wild. They were shocked and impressed by how big Wistia has become. I was blown away that people who already knew about Wistia are seeing our shirts out in the world.

Then Saturday rolled around. I was on the prowl for lunch, wearing my Wistia shirt, when I heard someone call out “Wistia!” I turned around to find an enthusiastic guy who proclaimed that, three days earlier, he had become a customer. I practically fell into the street. We’ve come a long way but having someone stop me on the street was still a pretty mindblowing experience.

Working at a startup, it’s easy to become dependent on metrics. And once you start depending on metrics, it can become much harder to make intuitive decisions that can’t be measured. We send out t-shirts because we trust that it will help spread brand recognition and give people a comfy shirt that actually like to wear. I still have no empirical evidence that sending t-shirts is a good marketing strategy, so I’ll just trust that it is and keep sending them out.

You can be an expert at anything

I like to think about learning new skills as a pursuit of happiness. Some skills are easy to learn and can provide a lot of joy, like playing ping pong.  Others seem impossible to learn but if only you could learn them then you’d be happy, like being a successful entrepreneur.
Here’s how I’d graph out the fun generated by playing ping pong over time:

For the most part it’s a linear progression. It’s easy to make improvements when you first start playing. You learn to keep the ball on the table more often, you learn hit the ball with spin, the ball actually starts going where you want it to.

Every one of those moments is a rush. A rush that brings you back to the table. A rush that keeps the fun going. A rush that makes you want to practice. Over time the rushes come from more advanced shots.The cycle continues as more practice begets more fun, and now you’re a great ping pong player.

Great! But why are some skills so much harder to learn? Well, let’s go to the graph:

Learning to play the piano is hard. Most people never get past the valley of despair. That’s because to truly have fun playing the piano you want to be able to improvise, make up your own songs, pick up a tune by ear, and entertain yourself with your creativity. Just imagine how much fun it would be to create great music at any moment.

Here’s the secret: You can change the graph of happiness to skill learning if you can measure improvement in smaller increments, deriving joy from each achievement along the way.

You need to make the graph of learning those difficult skills look like this:

You have to measure smaller elements of skill learning that will generate joy for you, so that you can forge right through the valley of despair.

Instead of starting off trying to write a bestseller, start measuring how many daily visitors you can get to a blog. Can you get five people to read your next blog post? As traffic begins to grow, move onto weekly and monthly visitors. Instead of going into a startup thinking you’re going to sell the business for $50MM, measure how many new people you tell about the company in a month. Then move on to measuring the number of leads you get. Evolve the measurement so that you have attainable goals that bring you joy, but so that you’re also marching forward.

Life is nothing but skills waiting to be mastered. You just need to pick the ones you want to master and start finding ways to get joy out of the journey.

What new skills are you trying to master? What do you want to be the best at?

Build a great brand experience

It’s really hard to build a brand. It’s hard to get the attention of others, it’s hard to get people onto your website, and it’s hard to create something that people will buy and use. We realized early on that the best visitors we get hear about us through word of mouth. Word of mouth is driven by happy people who have a great brand experience.

This is how we’ve focused on building a great brand experience:

  1. Trust: A great brand experience needs to establish trust between the business and its customers. We establish trust by giving surprisingly honest feedback to customers (such as sending them to a competitor if they’re not a good fit), making it easy for anyone to get in contact with us (by putting a phone number on our website), and focusing on coaching instead of selling.
  2. Do the work for the customer: We try to do as much work for the customer as possible. This means spending extra time designing a product to simplify the first time experience, asking for the least amount of information needed to solve a problem, and putting the onus on us to do the work. 
  3. Creating a genuinely useful product.
  4. Surprise people with greatness: Give people unique and useful things that they’ll actually use. Give out the best quality t-shirt you can find instead of settling for the standard Hanes. Give people unique things they couldn’t get anywhere else. Give people something that will make them feel proud to support you.

Brand is everything. It’s every interaction with someone outside of your business. It’s your company culture. It’s your production process and the way you deal with a bug.

The secret to brand building is to start early and often. Your brand is not your logo or color scheme, it’s how people think about you. It’s the way that you represent yourself.