Thursday, November 10, 2016

How to Build something Special?

Recently I read couple of books back to back which chronicled the rise of two different unrelated companies – Starbucks (Pour Your Heart Into It) and Zappos (Delivering Happiness – A path to Profits, Passion, And Purpose). 
Zappos was acquired by Amazon in 2009 for $1.2 bn 

Both of these books were penned down by their founders and have the same theme more or less. Reading them in quick succession provided me an opportunity to spot the similarities, common mistakes made in the rise, development of these companies. It is important to note that both these companies worked in different sectors – in beverage and shoe retail business and started their journey in different timeframes.

Firstly, a few things from the Zappos journey which caught my attention.
The way Tony Hsieh has written it is phenomenal and it is so engaging. It feels as if someone my age, someone with the same mindset as me has written it because I felt I could relate to almost every emotion, every thought process which he shared. Not to say that Howard Schultz in Pour Your Heart Into It did a bad job - Just that I could relate more to Tony’s story and at places Howard Schultz’s book became a bit theoretical.

Both Tony and Howard mentioned that when they started their ventures, it was like they knew almost everyone by their first name and when they grew in size they could see new faces almost every day and the familiarity with people at workplace decreased rapidly. However, Zappos introduced a new measure to deal with it – every time an employee had to log in into his system not only he had to enter the username and password but also had to recognize a random employee face which was displayed. In case he didn’t know – the employee’s name and department was displayed. Over a period of time this would help everyone associate faces with names thus increasing bit of familiarity.
I like this creative way of tackling this problem and I understand it might not be completely practical that each time you login you are presented with a “Guess Who” puzzle. Maybe it is a good idea to do it once a week on Fridays when the atmosphere is already a bit relaxed.

Tony also describes how he as the company grew was approached for public speaking at conferences to share his experience of growing as a company. I was pleasantly surprised to read that the few mantras he adopted to become a skillful speaker are the same as what I learned in my stint in Toastmasters. He emphasized on personalizing the speech and not getting rattled even if he missed a portion of the script as anyways the audience never knows if you skipped something.

Zappos which started delivering shoes which was unheard during that time placed a lot of importance on customer experience. This is something which is practiced by successful giants like Amazon and Flipkart as well. The fundamental principle is to – “Under promise and Over deliver.”

Since I read the Zappos book right after the Starbucks one – I was able to see something in common in how these companies evolved into successful enterprises.

  1.  Amongst all the teething problems a new company faces – the biggest problem is the financial crunch. It cannot be avoided and it takes skillful handling of situations to steer away from crisis.
  2.  It is important to take lot of risks. Both Starbucks/Zappos launched new beverages/delivery style models which had no guarantee that they would work out fine. But to be successful a company needs to break new ground and try out new things and take risks.
  3. Lot of innovative, successful ideas come from normal employees – not the management ones. So it is important to have an open structure in the organization and employees are encouraged to share ideas and suggestions.
  4. Extending the above point – The management should have Honest and open communication with the employees. This builds trust and keeps everyone on the same page.

    Howard Schultz the Starbucks CEO – during one of the early years, directly shared with the employees in a meeting at the start of holiday (peak) season that the company was going to miss its targets. This helped braced the employees for the tough times ahead and breed the feeling of “
    we are in this together”. The company missed its targets but the direct openness increased togetherness within the company and they beat their own targets next year. 
    Similarly, Tony Hsieh (Zappos) directly shared with its own employees in a companywide email as they struggled with cash crunch that they had to lay off 8% off its employees as it would help them stay cash positive for the next financial year. The impressive thing is he didn’t use corporate jargon like – restructuring/reorganization, which is common place nowadays. Clearly spelling out the reasons allows the employees to trust you and you at least have a chance that they can see the company’s viewpoint.
  5. As the company grows from a startup to decent sized organization – it is very important to hire people who are a perfect fit to the company’s culture. Many people look to jump in just to make a quick buck for 2-3 years, add to their resume and venture towards greener pastures. But it ends up blowing a hole in the culture and the fabric of the organization. The vision which the company adopted gets relegated to just plaques and annual reports.
  6. Lastly, I find that making the customers happy should be the ultimate goal of any successful company. Not only Starbucks and Zappos tried to do that – if you look around every big successful company has adopted this mantra in their own way.
Starting a new company is like venturing out into the sea with a small boat but as the company grows braving the adversities it becomes a medium/big sized ship. And then it is very difficult to change its direction. So a lot of importance has to be placed in the starting years on company culture, and the commitment to the company’s vision.

A lot of other factors (tangible and intangible) decide how a startup blossoms but I realized that the above ones play a crucial role and shouldn’t be missed.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Sibylline Story

I came across this piece while reading Douglas Adams book - "Last Chance To See" and it somehow felt so scaringly apt for humanity as a whole in present times.

It is a story from Sibylline book which basically means from Greek mythology. Sibyl were women that ancient Greeks believed were Oracles and could foretell the future.

Reproducing the piece below just so that it doesn't get lost in the annals of my mind.


There’s a story I heard when I was young that bothered me because I couldn’t understand it. It was many years before I discovered it to be the story of the Sybilline books. By that time all the details of the story had rewritten themselves in my mind, but the essentials were still the same. After a year of exploring some of the endangered environments of the world, I think I finally understand it.
It concerns an ancient city – it doesn’t matter where it was or what it was called. It was a thriving, prosperous city set in the middle of a large plain. One summer, while people of the city were busy thriving and prospering away, a strange old beggar woman arrived at the gates carrying twelve large books, which she offered to sell to them. She said that the books contained all the knowledge and all the wisdom of the world, and that she would let the city have all twelve of them in return for a single sack of gold.
The people of the city thought this was a very funny idea. They said she obviously had no conception of the value of gold and that probably the best thing was for her to go away again.
This she agreed to do, but first she said that she was going to destroy half of the books in front of them. She built a small bonfire, burnt six of the books of all knowledge and all wisdom in the sight of the people of the city, and then went on her way.
Winter came and went, a hard winter, but the city just managed to flourish through it and then, the following summer, the old woman was back.
“Oh, you again,” said the people of the city. “How’s the knowledge and wisdom going?”
“Six books,” she said, “just six left. Half of all the knowledge and wisdom in the world. Once again I am offering to sell them to you.”
“Oh yes?” sniggered the people of the city.
“Only the price has changed.”
“Not surprised.”
“Two sacks of gold.”
“Two sacks of gold for the six remaining books of knowledge and wisdom. Take it or leave it.”
“It seems to us,” said the people of the city, “that you can’t be very wise or knowledgeable yourself or you would realise that you can’t just go around quadrupling an already outrageous price in a buyer’s market. If that’s the sort of knowledge and wisdom you’re peddling, then, frankly, you can keep it at any price.”
“Do you want them or not?”
“Very well. I will trouble you for a little firewood.”
She built another bonfire and burnt three of the remaining books in front of them and then set off back across the plain.
That night one or two curious people from the city sneaked out and sifted through the embers to see if they could salvage the odd page or two, but the fire had burnt very thoroughly and the old woman had raked the ashes. There was nothing.
Another hard winter took its toll on the city and they had a little trouble with famine and disease, but trade was good and they were in reasonably good shape again by the following summer when, once again, the old woman appeared.
“You’re early this year,” they said to her.
“Less to carry,” she explained, showing them the three books she was still carrying. “A quarter of all the knowledge and wisdom in the world. Do you want it?”
“What’s the price?”
“Four sacks of gold.”
“You’re completely mad, old woman. Apart from anything else, our economy’s going through a bit of a sticky patch at the moment. Sacks of gold are completely out of the question.”
“Firewood, please.”
“Now wait a minute,” said the people of the city, “this isn’t doing anybody any good. We’ve been thinking about all this and we’ve put together a small committee to have a look at these books of yours. Let us evaluate them for a few months, see if they’re worth anything to us, and when you come back next year, perhaps we can put in some kind of a reasonable offer. We are not talking sacks of gold here, though.”
The old woman shook her head. “No,” she said. “Bring me the firewood.”
“It’ll cost you.”
“No matter,” said the woman, with a shrug. “The books will burn quite well by themselves.”
So saying, she set about shredding two of the books into pieces which then burnt easily. She set off swiftly across the plain and left the people of the city to face another year.
She was back in the late spring.
“Just one left,” she said, putting it down on the ground in front of her. “So I was able to bring my own firewood.”
“How much?” said the people of the city.
“Sixteen sacks of gold.”
“We’d only budgeted for eight.”
“Take it or leave it.”
“Wait here.”
The people of the city went off into a huddle and returned half an hour later.
“Sixteen sacks is all we’ve got left,” they pleaded, “times are hard. You must leave us with something.”
The old woman just hummed to herself as she started to pile the kindling together.
“All right!” they cried at last, opened up the gates of the city, and let out two ox carts , each laden with eight sacks of gold. “But it had better be good.”
“Thank you,” said the old woman, “it is. And you should have seen the rest of it.”
She led the two ox carts away across the plain with her, and left the people of the city to survive as best they could with the one remaining twelfth of all the knowledge and wisdom that had been in the world.