You may have a goofy-looking golf swing, or an unusual bend in your ball flight, but, if you can repeat that time after time, you can score really well. If you are confident that each shot will behave the same as the one before, you will put the ball where you want it.
Similarly, when you are running a startup, and particularly when you are scaling, it matters more what you do than exactly how you do it. You may have quirky patterns in operating your company, but, if you are consistent in how you do things, you’ll achieve your production goals. Your team will know what to expect, and you’ll be perceived as treating your customers and colleagues fairly.
Nowhere is this more obvious than your terms and conditions of doing business. If you randomly deviate from the rate card based on perceived market pressures or on personal suasion, you’ll have a very hard time growing. For one thing, it becomes difficult to keep track of the business and to keep your margins and profits on budget. Most often such a lack of discipline is accompanied by an absence of reliable record keeping. Perhaps only one person knows all the special deals that have been cut, and in his or her time off things can get rather embarrassing. Keep in mind that in the absence of data the customer’s memory is always right.
Simplification is an important concept in any startup. I constantly see plans that are just too complicated. They can’t be crisply explained. Even if they are addressing a substantial problem with an attractive solution, they want for more concise messaging. Too many moving parts are hard for eager customers to understand, and potential investors won’t even try. They’ll just go on to the next deal in the inbox that more quickly gets them to the aha moment. The analogy in golf is to limit the number of swing thoughts. If you have to consciously think about 5 different things every time you take the club back, you’ll likely only execute two or three of them and never achieve repeatability.
All these points fall into the general category of design. Not only does your product or service need to be cleverly designed to find its place in the market, your entire business should be designed to perform. Don’t expect that design just happens. Better golfers generally have a method of learning, and, with a very few exceptions, a team of experts on everything from physical techniques to nutrition to mental conditioning. That team designs a customized golf game that makes the subject athlete competitive at whatever level he or she seeks to achieve. The design takes into account God-given skills and mental capacity for such a difficult and often counterintuitive sport; no two individuals play exactly like each other or like Tiger Woods in his heyday. By the same token, planning a business is more than just creating a spreadsheet and populating the staff in hopes of executing in accordance with the projections. There needs to be a master hand in charge of the overall design process, and attention must be paid to even the smallest details. Consistency and repeatability start at the cellular level of a well designed company and infuse their way through its entire corpus.
Who designs your company? Do you have all the skills to do it yourself? That’s highly unlikely. Is it appropriate then to seek training to acquire the skills to become a designer? How much useful help can you get from your peers, mentors, or from lodging yourself in an accelerator or incubator program? The answers to those questions depend on what talents you bring to the table and on where you decide is best to apply yourself. There’s an aesthetic in the design of a business. It flows through the initial description of the concept to the team building to the product itself to the marketing messaging to the user experience to all the attendant operational and administrative functions. Is that your gift?
I personally don’t rate myself highly on design. I have more of an engineering mindset and the ability to get things done, but I have over my career come to trust a cadre of experts whose strengths more than offset my weaknesses. I believe I can discern a good business design from a bad one, and I work to seek the advantages of a design that allows me to focus on doing what I personally do best. I recommend that you assess yourself in that light and don’t feel like you have to micromanage everything about your startup. Develop trust in people who complement you. And, don’t try to teach yourself golf in your spare time either; trust others who can examine and correct your swing and your style of play. Stack the odds in your favor in your business and your recreation by surrounding yourself with people who already possess a long list of skills you probably can’t ever master and don’t even need to learn.
“Design Thinking” is a trending topic in universities and in corporate America. UT Austin in the last couple of years has poured resources and recruited an elite faculty into its Center for Integrated Design, part of its Bridging Disciplines Program, housed in Fine Arts but partnered with Engineering, Computer Sciences, Business, Architecture, and Information. I’ve also witnessed design thinking exercises in process at the corporate Innovation Centers affiliated with Georgia Tech. Design has come to be much more broadly defined than what in my college days was called Industrial Design and was submerged in the Architecture school. Now it represents an entirely new method of business problem solving and decision making, and it reinforces the topic of this essay. It is applied in ventures from startups to the Fortune 100. It’s a revisitation of the process of how groups create designs that incorporate aesthetics with performance, and, yes, repeatability.
Note that design thinking includes re-design. The marketplace is fluid, and today’s well designed and highly repeatable process may not fit tomorrow’s needs. For example, at the time of this writing, Facebook is radically changing what it serves up in its news feed to favor your most personal relationships and to de-prioritize news media and advertising posts. I have direct experience in Facebook marketing, and I can assure you that anyone in that business is facing a re-think and re-design pending how Facebook users react to this change. Last month’s metrics on ad spend ROI and next month’s may be entirely different if you stick to your old repeatable process. You may well need a major update of your service or product design and your overall business design if you make your living in that sector of ad technology.
No design is permanent and untouchable. Your lovely golf swing will change as you age, as you get injured from time to time, as you have family or business distractions take your mind off the sport now and then, and as new and even better equipment comes out. Remember, you can always go to your pro shop and buy yourself a better game, right? Well, there will be times when you need to spend some money to buy yourself a better company – not so much on gear but on talent. Nothing is more repeatable than the very notion of repeating your whole design process as circumstances change.