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.

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.

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.

What’s in a name?

People frequently ask us why team members at Wistia have formal titles even though we’re such a small company. This is a great question and something that I’ve asked myself. Let’s see how we decided to go with the titles we use now.
Over time, through trial and error, I’ve discovered the secret to a team getting tons of work done: give people autonomy, ownership, and the power to make change.

Autonomy - freedom from external control or influence; independence

Are you more excited to do what you want to do or what you’re told to do? What kind of problem do you find more motivating? Giving people autonomy to find the problems that they think deserve to be solved and to solve these problems their own way is incredibly motivating.

We want everyone who is at and will be at Wistia to have the freedom to solve problems the way they see fit.  One reason we opted to “round up” on titles instead of “rounding down” is so that everyone understands that each team member has this autonomy.

Ownership - the state or fact of being an owner

The biggest challenge of running a startup is deciding what to do next. What should we do tonight, tomorrow, next week, or next year? We’ve handled a part of this decision making process by making sure that one person has ownership over each critical part of the business.

When we make decisions about which feature, partnership, or marketing strategy to pursue next, we always have someone fighting from the perspective of each aspect of the business. This helps us keep all the parts of the company balanced and make smarter decisions. Using this approach, people end up fighting pretty hard for what they believe in.

Power to make change - the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events

Our approach would not work if we had a crew of people generating ideas and one person enacting them. We need everybody to have the power to make change. This can mean having the authority to push “send” on a newsletter, sign a partnership, or commit code. (Side note: Jeff, our Director of Customer Happiness, decided it would be a good idea to commit his code in his first week on the job helping people with support. He wanted to fix a recurring support issue by improving the product instead of creating a canned email.)

Where does this leave us?
We have a team of people fighting to get things done, make the right decisions, and having fun. If that means that our titles are a little more formal than you would find elsewhere, that’s fine with me.