Awesomeness

A series on the Faithlife core values: Honesty. Openness. Awesomeness. Growth. Initiative. Elegance. Shipping.
We live in world of quality products. Where it is unusual to repair a product, because products either rarely fail, or are so cheap that when they do we simply purchase a newer, better model for less than the cost of repair.
Every business aims to provide excellent service. A 60-cent candy bar has a toll-free customer service number on the wrapper, and a call will ensure a complete refund of your expenditure and an apology for the inconvenience.
Today, doing a good job, building a quality product, and serving customers well aren’t things that set a business apart. These things are the norm.
Awesomeness still stands out.

  • When a product has a surprisingly useful or fun feature, that’s awesome.
  • When someone exceeds your expectations in service, that’s awesome.
  • When you’re surprised by something delightful, that’s awesome.

It’s awesome if it’s something people would tell other people about. It’s awesome if it makes people say “That’s awesome!”
It doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It doesn’t have to be extravagant. It doesn’t have to be consistent.
Just awesome.
It’s hard to be consistently awesome. It takes hard work and creativity. Sure, you could throw money at the problem, or build elaborate checklists and flow charts, and turn some mundane things into awesome things. But the best awesomeness is a surprise.
Our customers would find it awesome to discover a $100 bill in their new software package as an ‘instant refund.’ If every package had one, though, people would soon wonder why we didn’t just lower prices and reduce complexity. If it were routine, it would lose its awesomeness.
How can we be more awesome?
Go beyond what’s required once in a while. If a customer has a problem we can address with a $50 credit, give them a $70 credit. Not every time. Not every customer. Just once in a while. Because it’s awesome when you get more than you deserve.
Actually listen to people. So many people call or write with a story about why they need us to break a rule, not apply a policy, or make a special exception. It’s easy to receive this on auto-pilot, and hold to the rules. And we need to. Except sometimes we shouldn’t. Because it’s awesome when someone overrules a policy to help you.
Surprise someone. Send a thank you note after a routine transaction. Include a tiny gift in a shipment. Implement a feature that’s fun and delights people.
Is there a part of our business, product, or service that isn’t awesome? Put together your own ‘awesome brainstorming team’ and come up with some awesome ideas on how to fix it.
Is there a way we could be more awesome for our customers? Suggest it.
It’s hard to be awesome all the time. But it’s one of our core values – and one of the things that will keep our customers happy, returning, and telling others about us.

Read for Cash

Our “continuing education” program for employees can be summed up in one word: read.
Every year we pay our team to read business books. The financial incentive (15 cents / page) and requirements (the books are all pre-approved, the campaign lasts six weeks) lead people to read outside their normal interests and outside their normal job responsibilities.
In 2006 32 employees read 104 books; this year we had 151 participants read 485 books.
I encouraged everyone to contact the authors of the books they read simply to thank them for writing the book. 102 participants did, and two-thirds heard back from the author. (As quickly as within an hour, and most often with appreciation and a personal reply.)
To get paid, participants email a short review and star rating to the entire company. It can be as little as a sentence, but was often a thoughtful review with insights on how the lessons learned apply to our business. I read all 485 reports and was daily impressed with what a smart and interesting team I get to work with.
On a scale of 1 – Useless to 5 – Great Program, employees rated this year’s Read for Cash 4.5.

Almost Perfect

I read Almost Perfect, the story of WordPerfect Corporation, years ago, and have used the story of ‘the minor change that wasn’t worth testing before release’ many times.

“On Friday the 13th there were so many people trying to call us that our busy signals brought down the entire AT&T 800 system in the Mountain West. The phones in the Delta Airlines reservation center and the American Express customer service center, both in Salt Lake City, all went quiet. AT&T called around lunchtime to politely inquire how soon we could clear up our busy signals. Much to our embarrassment, we had no answer for them. We were in deep trouble.”

Now the whole book is online; you’ll find this story in Chapter 9.
 

What we value at Logos

A recent email to the company…
There is nothing at Logos more important than our corporate values:
Honesty. Openness. Awesomeness. Growth. Initiative. Elegance. Shipping.
These values reflect what we want to be as an organization. They help us decide what to do today and next year. They answer both ‘how?’ and ‘why?’
I love being part of this organization. I enjoy explaining our values and get a thrill out of seeing us live up to them in big dramatic moments when people wonder if we’ll stick to them and in small, simple ways every day. I consider it an honor and a privilege to be a leader here.
Unfortunately, as organizations grow the distance between people increases. If you joined Logos in the first few years, you were probably older than me and there’s a good chance I helped you move. If you joined this year, we may not have even met yet, and I may be mysterious and remote to you.
And the bigger we get, the harder it is to do something about that. But I want to do what I can to fight that sense of hierarchy and distance. I want everyone here to be on the same page, living the same values, working towards the same ends. And I want to be part of that daily work with you.
So here is what you need to understand about me:
I care about the work. The work is what we are doing every day as we live out our values. The work is what our values enable and it is the fruit of our labor. I want the company to produce excellent work we can all be proud of, and I want us to get it out into the world where it can be useful to people.
And, at a personal level, I simply delight in excellent work: a perfect turn of phrase, an elegant bit of code, a beautiful design, a prospect turned customer and a customer turned raving-fan. It’s fun to see these things!
It doesn’t matter who creates it: when the company does excellent work we all win.
I don’t care about status or rank or credentials – mine or yours. No qualification guarantees that all your work is excellent, and no lack of qualification prevents someone from being able to recognize or create good work.
So it matters a lot that our work is done within the context of our values.
I love to see great work at Logos. (Awesomeness. Initiative. Elegance. Shipping.) I will also call out bad work at Logos. (Honesty. Openness. Growth.) And I expect the same from you. Do I like to have my work criticized? No. Do I take it personally when people tell me something I worked hard on wasn’t that great? Yes. But as painful as honest criticism is, it would be far worse to never get it. Without the honest criticism that leads to better work, I might never hear (and could certainly never trust) the praise that great work earns.
Sometimes we might disagree on what is and isn’t good work. Sometimes we may disagree about how much more effort should go into something before it ships. As CEO I have ultimate decision rights, and sometimes you’ll hear me exercise those rights.
But I want you to know that you work at a company where doing good work is the ultimate power. To know that a good idea is valued more than a job title. To know that honest criticism is about the work, never about the person, and that it’s your right – and duty – to provide that work-focused criticism to your supervisors and co-workers as much as to those who report to you.
If you are living our values and doing great work, you are doing all I could ask of you and more.
And when your work falls short, as mine so often does, you can expect to hear about it. And you can know that the feedback is about the work, not about you, and is delivered in the spirit of our values. Just like the painful and incredibly useful feedback I got on the first draft of this email from one of your co-workers. This is a better email because of it.
You are here because we chose to work with you. You were hired because you do good work and have the potential to grow and improve and do even better work in the future. Live the values in confidence.
Thank you for being part of this team with me.

Advice to my 21 year-old self

An intern invited me to coffee today and asked what advice I’d give my 21 year-old self.
The answer was easy: read more history and biography.
As the saying goes, “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.”
The only shortcut I’ve found is to study other people’s experience, and that’s mostly written up in history and biography. You can’t read enough of it.

Printed books freeze the Zeitgeist

I came across this interesting criticism of a project to continually update a 1907 dictionary in a new online edition:

More importantly, and this is my real issue, the online-only presence of The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology means that we lose Zeitgeist, an important historical insight that we won’t see for decades, perhaps centuries down the line. … Being cast in stone, printed resources provide future generations with a specific snapshot of a specific age. An online-only, “ever new” resource lacks that tangibility, and with it we lose a mirror into our present-day cultural construct.

I appreciate how authoritative ‘a book published in year‘ is as a statement of exactly what people believed or knew at a point in history. This is an interesting thought about one of the (few) disadvantages of always-up-to-date content. Thankfully, we have the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

Everything changes but people

Over thousands of years we have learned that people never change but that our culture and circumstances – technology, buildings, tools, communications, transportation, etc. – change constantly.
Yet when people make big plans (or worse, write big laws or found ambitious non-profits) they get things backwards: from their good intentions and future vision they extrapolate a world in which people are wiser, nicer, and more enlightened, and from their focus on today’s problems they imagine a world where these problems will need to be actively addressed for decades to come.
It just isn’t so.
You can read the earliest written history we have and see that people are exactly the same: we love and hate, are selfish and selfless, buy and sell, and grumble about taxes. The interpersonal narrative of any ancient literature could trivially be reset in our modern world as a recognizable and relevant human story.
On the other hand, our cultural context is changing constantly. It was less than 70 years from the Wright brothers’ first flight to landing on the moon. For most people, it’s been less than 20 years since they heard of the Internet, and less than 7 years since they got a smart phone and started carrying the Internet in their pocket. And today they can’t remember life before that.
In less than a century railroads re-shaped the world; cities were redesigned, different foods and products were available for purchase, distance was reimagined and people changed where and how they lived. Just decades later the automobile century started changing it all again. Today autonomous cars, flying drones and ubiquitous mapping, sensors, and communications are about to repeat the cycle.
And still we write laws and draw up plans to address an extrapolated vision of today that will never come to be.

Advice to a young CEO

What’s the best advice for a young, first-time CEO?

Get rid of your television
It sounds silly, but you’re going to need every moment of every day, and television is a distraction you can’t afford.
Read business history and biography
Remember the old saw about how good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment? There’s only one substitute for years of experience: learning from the experience of others. Fill every spare moment with reading about others’ experience. Pay particular attention to failure stories; they are even more useful than the wisdom of those who have succeeded.

See the rest of my answer at Quora. (It contains points from my Getting Ahead slides.)