Successful entrepreneurs like Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, exhort startups to write down their core values on Day 1 and make company culture a first-order concern from the very beginning.
Have you tried it? The problem is that after you look at what you wrote, you’ll probably see a bunch of boring clichés. Many of your company values might sound suspiciously similar to Zappos’s and Netflix’s. Your company couldn’t sound less exciting.
Molly Graham, former Head of Mobile at Facebook, who worked with Mark Zuckerberg to define Facebook’s company culture in 2008, recognized this common pitfall. She came up with an ingenious solution to the problem, rooted in a simple trick that Amazon uses to build its products, that helped Facebook own the Hacker brand that defined the company through its IPO.
How Amazon Ensures Products that Excite Customers
At Amazon, before the product has been built or even spec’d, the product manager has a vital task that will shape the entire product development process. The product manager must write a press release that announces the finished product.
They “are centered around the customer problem, how current solutions (internal or external) fail, and how the new product will blow away existing solutions.” Written from the customer perspective, they’re short — just a few of paragraphs long.
What makes the press releases so powerful is that the product manager is forced to distill to the essence why customers will get excited about the new product: “the product manager should keep iterating on the press release until they’ve come up with [customer] benefits that actually sound like benefits.”
As Ian McAllister, General Manager at Amazon puts it, “If the benefits listed don’t sound very interesting or exciting to customers, then perhaps they’re not (and shouldn’t be built).”
Your Startup Culture Press Release
When you’re trying to define your culture, you have a bunch of adjectives and phrases that describe you and your company. What Graham realized at Facebook was that you need to turn those adjectives into a story that leaves the boring bits out and cuts to the heart of why the company is different and compelling.
For Amazon, the pre-product press release is the story that answers the fundamental question of why the product is interesting to customers. Graham had an insight — why not apply the same idea to company culture? Her solution was powerful but simple: put down on paper what you want Fast Company to write about your culture in two years.
Like the Amazon press release, if it’s boring, do another draft. Keep going until you have something that your customers (current and potential), your employees, and your supporters recognize as unique and distinctive. Graham goes as far as to say “you should only write down your story if you are willing to stick your neck out and make it controversial.” Why? Because company culture should not only sound appealing to the people you want, it should also sound unappealing to the people you don’t want.
If you’re not willing to take a stand with your company culture, you shouldn’t bother. It’ll be dull and antiseptic, unable to guide decision-making on tough questions, and no one will care.
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Amazon calls its philosophy “working backwards” and at its core, it’s about “driv[ing] simplicity through a continuous, explicit customer focus,” describes CTO Werner Vogels. “[Y]ou start with your customer and work your way backwards until you get to the minimum set of … requirements to satisfy what you try to achieve.”
The press release bridges that critical perspective gap between inside and outside, nailing “how the world will see the product — not just how we think about it internally.” Do you want Fast Company to write two years down the line about how your company’s amazing customer service starts and ends with its company culture around delivering WOW (Zappos)? Or do you want it to write about the Hacker Way, your philosophy on breaking rules to make rapid progress (Facebook)?
Start at the end. Think about that compelling, specific, and controversial company story that you want Fast Company to tell, and work backwards to figure out your company values and what you need to do to get there.
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Image: Robert Scoble/Flickr