“Saving babies doesn’t scale, but YouTube advertising does. Surely it’s possible to put the scale of YouTube into the Health industry?”
Do you want to hear what it’s like to ride a real HealthTech rollercoaster as we tried to solve a real problem? At ResApp Health we were a respiratory HealthTech startup in a respiratory disease pandemic. During the blur that was the COVID pandemic, Leading the Product invited me to share my experience. It’s difficult to communicate the feeling of ultimate hope and near catatrosphy at the same time. I hope I capture how hard it is to execute on even the most obvious Health Industry problems.
Iconically, one of the reasons I left Google was that it made too much money. Prioritisation seems pointless when the business is printing cash. I wanted to feel the weight of prioritisation, of profit and loss, and test whether I actually knew how to do strategy when it actually can change the outcome.
So I went to a startup and, despite not even being breakeven, everything was a strategic priority. More specifically, there was a rotating list of priorities depending on the week, weather and if it was school holidays or not. Unsurprisingly, there were 100 great ideas sitting on the shelf. More concerningly, there were 20 almost finished projects sitting on the shelf. As an example, the data team had built a rigously back tested recommendation engine, but there was no product requirements or strategy for actually solving a customer problem with it.
Where do you even start to build a great startup strategy?
Step 1: It’s ok to start broad
The goal is to explain why (not how) only a few key actions are critical to delivering a single goal. A north star metric or outcome is the definition of that single goal. Usually for a Saas business that’s some type of ongoing user engagement, assuming you have tied engagement to revenue.
For example on YouTube that north star metric was video watch time, given watch time has a proven causative relationship with both happier customers and more exposure to advertising revenue. At Mable that was hours of delivered care, again with an assumption that longer and more relationships was a better customer outcome, and revenue was a % of timesheets delivered. Find that north star for your company, and ideally make it as tied to the purpose and vision as possible.
Next you need some strategic pillars to support this north star. Usually you will start with meaningless and broad pillars like “Our Customers” or “Our team”. These are generally too broad to be useful, every company has these same assets so they are not strategic advantages.
So now they need to be made more specific. We’re a growth startup, so “Our Customers” then becomes “Streamline customer onboarding” because we need growth above all else. This is the right decision if onboarding is both a key strategy for the current market, AND also a key competitive difference you have.
Step 2: Tie it to the business model
One way of narrowing down the strategic pillar is to put a specific metric on it. For example, maybe instead of just broadly talking customer onboarding, we could specifically look for monthly user signups.
By building a rough business model in Excel, you can then ladder targets up to a desired north star goal. For example if your north star is video watch time, then you can model how many new customer signups you need to hit that target and cascade these targets down to your strategic pillars. This is a good process in itself, because you soon understand what are the 5 or so key drivers of your business model – what’s actually correlated with hitting your goal.
The danger at this step is that you get so focused on your target that you forget why you were even chasing it. A classic example is The Verge:
As you start questioning your goal metric, it’s worth doing some slicing and dicing. Is every customer signup worth the same? Are some stickier than others? Where are the best referrals coming from?
Step 3: The why
Gievn what you now know about the broad strategic areas, and the inner workings of your business model, what is the strategic lever you hold in your hands?
For example you might realise that some key customer signups are churning 50% less than others. Perhaps they are more empowered, have more time to invest or something else – discover that “why” behind their objective success. Another way of asking this is to send out a Product Market Fit (PMF) survey and to see who would actually be devastated if your product disappeared?
The goal should be an Egyptian style pyramid that captures the “why” behind each of the strategic levers that are unique for you:
The struggle at this point is getting the pillars down to 3-5. If you’re a startup then growth is the goal (otherwise you’d just be a small business), so capture the growth levers on the top row of the pyramid.
There will no doubt be a ton of other fundamental problems that need to be solved as you scale. These might be HR systems, culture, risk management etc. that are critical to scale but not strategic growth levers. Capture these in the baseline of the pyramid.
Step 4: Deploy resources
The nice thing about this visualisation is you can communicate a really critical nuance – which strategic areas need all the resource they can get, versus which areas just need to be solved. For example risk might be something you absolutely need to manage at scale, but your customer value proposition vs the market isn’t safety. Therefore it’s a baseline problem that needs to be solved with a small team on a schedule.
As your team grows, you can illustrate just how much resource has gone into each strategic pillar. The executive level conversation then uplevels to a triangular discussion that tests the three sides of this strategy:
Why – Do we have the right why? Is our strategy working?
Metric – Are we moving in line with the business model?
Investment – Are we investing the right amount to move the dial?
Conclusion: Layer up your strategy pyramid
Congratulations, now you have an overall strategy pyramid. Each pillar of that pyramid has three dimensions that can be tested on a regular basis to ensure you’re delivering on your strategy. Good luck!
Recently I was given Cameron Schwab’s book “What leaders can learn from football“, which was followed up by a webinar with Cameron to apply the book to the current COVID remote working situation. I’d like to share my key takeaways.
Boards are more distant than ever
There is an increasing gap between boards and the team. Boards are asking how we take advantage of this seismic change, how do we be more bold? Teams however are over the groundhog day of lockdowns, constant ambiguity and juggling their lives. How do leaders bridge that gap?
Firstly leaders must build a foundation of trust. This involves empathising with their teams. Listening. Starting every conversation with “how are you?”. Take 2 minutes to check in and connect. Recognise the struggle they are going through. Empathetic conversations don’t have to take a long time. You have to aspire to be a better human and it will resonate. Trust is the outcome of showing your authenticity and mettle through tough situations.
Name your 6-7 most meaningful relationships inside the company. That’s your measure of trust, buy in, clarity and connection. That’s your key to leadership success. You can’t maintain any more relationships than that.
Once trust is built, then as leaders our most important role is to reduce ambiguity for our teams. Leaders are makers of meaning – they create a story of “us”. They are makers of place – creating a sense of belonging. You belong to this team because of your attitude/character, your capabilities and whether you connect in personally.
The contradiction of a board is they have the least detail on the company, but are charged with making the really key decisions. What does winning look like? What do we need to be good at? Can we get an alignment between ambition and capability? If not, we have set expectations incorrectly.
Leaders overpromise to their board because of this, they overstate capability to match the board’s ambition. You need to be honest about what we are going to do – We can’t do everything, the most important thing is choosing what to do. Prioritising.
How will we know if we prioritised correctly? If there’s a gap between ambition and measurement. Do the board agree your measurable goals are ambitious enough?
Teaching and Learning
Your team cannot outperform your leadership. Leaders set the culture, which drives behaviours, which drive results. Your main responsibility as a leader is to create an atmosphere where your team can do their best work.
Transparency is the key behaviour, keeping your teams informed so they can solve problems and role modelling the standard of behaviour expected.
Again the building block of is trust. Carve your mistakes into the wall. In this way you use your own learnings to build trust into the team.
Leaders need to be connected in the future. Make sense of the world quickly and be decisive. Be a transparent learner and then great teacher. If you’re wrong it’s ok, bring those learnings into your team. Be able to adapt quickly. Be a great storyteller around that. Cross a bridge of vulnerability to teach your experience.
Authenticity from the top
Leadership has never been more important and expectations have never been higher. In business, we promote people to leadership before we teach them leadership. In sport, leadership is taught and expected from the start – every player needs to step up during key moments and lead when the ball is in their hand. An extraordinary number of people climb the leadership mountain and then find they don’t like the view. You have to get to the point where as a leader you can walk into a room and not have to fake it or you will burn out. People can smell fake leaders.
By telling teams they can work flexibility, you’re actually putting the onus on them to go figure it out. The reality is that for some people remote work is an advantage, for others it’s a disadvantage. Not everyone is treated equally by this, but they should be treated fairly and with empathy.
The people who complain that culture is hard remotely, probably had a good culture by accident before. You need to be more deliberate. Put the challenge to high performing teammates, what can you do to help others? Leaders need to disperse responsibility to the team. Be surprised by the insights teams have into each other, then can leverage their perspectives and insights.
Leadership User Manuals were popular back in 2018 as high growth companies tried to scale their leadership. Claire Hughes had probably the most famous example she created after leaving Google to join Stripe, where she took a very comprehensive and tactical approach.
Although I’m in a much smaller growth business, I do think it’s important for growth leaders to be self-reflective and communicate widely with their teams. To achieve this, I drafted and then asked my team to refine a leadership user manual of my own. This exercise in itself is a great test of psychological safety on your team! I’ve decided to share my manual publicly below, for me to reflect on in a few years, to inspire others to share and to provide an even higher level of personal transparency.
Scott’s User Manual
How I view success
Enjoying what you do (almost) every day. Australia is a land of privilege and we have a responsibility to do something that both makes ourselves and others happy. Even when you don’t enjoy it, feeling that at least you chose this path and are learning through the process.
How I communicate
When you’re not hearing much from me – You are doing a good job, and I appreciate your work.
“Please do this” – You need to do this now, and I shouldn’t have needed to tell you. Tell me when it’s done.
“To be perfectly honest” – This is an intervention because you’ve strayed way off track. Come back to me with what you will do next before you do it.
Bullet points – It helps me to structure my thoughts logically.
Things I do that may annoy or be misunderstood
I change my perspective on what should be done between meetings
I introduce a new idea or priority without much warning
I give directives without context
There are usually 2 reasons why I change my decision:
New data – When I hear new data, it might cause me to change my decision. I then sometimes skip steps in bringing my team along with exactly why I changed my decision. If this happens, please challenge me with “What data made you change your mind on this?”
An important stakeholder has had input – I will always name the stakeholder and be transparent with their feedback. My instinct is to test responses with the stakeholder immediately so I can better guide my team. When I then communicate to my team, it is very directive because I feel I have already tested a response and aligned on a narrative.
Not being clear on whether the problem you are raising is a delegation or an FYI
I’m sharing because I value transparency, but if there’s no immediate ask then it’s a stretch goal for a future quarter
What gains and loses my trust
Gains – proactivity
When you admit a mistake or weakness and ask for help.
When you preempt an extra question – I appreciate knowing the details.
When you follow through with something you said you would do
Loses – inconsistency
When I get information just before/after a stakeholder update. I lost face because I didn’t know something was wrong. I appreciate knowing the details.
When you stop doing something that was your responsibility because I stopped paying attention. I trust you to own your area especially when I’m not watching.
When after a pattern emerges (e.g. repeated issue) you don’t at least seek to put a system in place.
Bringing order to chaos – structure, prioritisation, frameworks, data
My growth areas
I need to be more explicit when giving feedback, particularly around whether it was acceptable or not
As per misunderstandings, I need to provide more context when changing a decision
My expectations of my direct reports
Own your shit – Surprise me with ambitious goals, follow through on what you said and show me that you know the key details. Autonomy should be your goal, and then my role is to challenge you with greater opportunities.
My calendar is always up to date and public, I always accept/decline and appreciate edit access so I can reshuffle if necessary
Anyone can book my calendar at any time. I love drop in 1:1’s, particularly for a coffee or walk around the city.
1:1’s are your time to drive the agenda. If I have no questions then I’m feeling confident in your ability.
Giving and Receiving Feedback
If I’m doing this well, then my feedback will never be a surprise. Tell me if you are surprised or if it’s consistent with past feedback to help me calibrate here. Surprises should never happen.
If you are not getting enough feedback, I hope you feel safe enough to ask.
If you ask and don’t get what you want, keep asking. I respect persistence when I don’t have a good answer for you.
Many years ago I had a direct report who had been very successful in a similar role at a previous company. They were rightly very confident in their technical ability. They knew what they were doing.
But when they moved companies, they unexpectedly recognised that they were not hitting clear and mutually agreed targets. Something was wrong. The issue couldn’t possibly be anything professional, because their skillset had been proven in a previous role. The issue couldn’t be personal, because as a person they hadn’t changed. So what’s left? It must be a cultural fit issue.
This is where it gets tricky. Culture in an organisation permeates everywhere, but ultimately it comes from the top. It’s very confronting and complex to determine how the role you know and love is perhaps wildly different in this new culture. You need to question your own strengths and weaknesses and decide whether you can or even want to adapt.
Instead it’s far easier to pin the cultural conflict on one or all leaders within the company and put it down to a personality conflict. “I’m doing the role right, it’s the company that needs to change”. This may in fact be true and even in the best interests of the company, but you’ve effectively decided it’s you vs the company. That never ends well.
My advice then is to join a new employer based on it’s culture above anything else. Even most new CEOs fail to change the culture, so find somewhere that fits your values.
It’s performance review time of year again! It’s hard enough to clear your head and objectively self-reflect on your own performance, let alone on the performance of others. For many of my team this was the first time that they’d been asked to provide 360 feedback on their peers, and so there was an extra level of discomfort. I recorded the following Loom video demonstrating the Situation, Behaviour, Impact (SBI) framework, in order to help them approach the feedback process and make their feedback more actionable. I hope it’s useful to others too.
Google provides a one click install option for WordPress on their Google Compute Engine instances. This is a very economical and customisable way to spin up a WordPress blog if you’re comfortable with a Debian shell. Unfortunately it only spins up a HTTP rather than secure HTTPS instance, so here’s how to add a free SSL certificate.
Firstly, log into your Cloud console and open an SSH shell for your instance
Then in the shell, run the following commands as mentioned here:
Recently I was invited to present at an AWS and Tableau conference on how companies use data effectively. There were multiple parts to this collaboration, including this linked article that acts as the overall summary of our business and Tableau involvement.
As it was during COVID, the full conference was recorded in a webinar format. This is my quick introduction video:
The full webinar can be viewed here. It captures a lot more detail such as an overview the data and systems architecture used, as well as specifics around our moderation service algorithm.
Finally the data architecture that I discuss, and show on a visual during the full video itself, is reproduced again below:
Words like “consultant”, “workdriver” and “special projects” still create a PTSD style effect in my head. These words drip with corporate context, very clearly and precisely signalling whether you were succeeding or failing. The email announcing a VP moving to “special projects” triggered a global cascade of watercooler conversations where we each dissected and calibrated their missteps and realigned our own. It feels like a high performing culture because you’re communicating in flow – there are barely any words exchanged but you can replay together how a pattern of behaviour over years became fatal for said VP. It’s almost a cult like sensation. People worry about leaving because they fear never experiencing this level of flow (read: intelligence) ever again?
Tim Fung from Airtasker reminded me of that on his webinar this morning. Why do leaders communicate? His example was a mistake he made, sending an email whilst under stress that the expected working hours were 8:30am – 6pm. On reflection, he wasn’t trying to communicate an expected outcome – people in seats. Instead his company was under serious financial pressure and the next few weeks required a mammoth effort to keep the dream alive, but he failed to communicate that context and lost good people because of it.
So what was Tim trying to communicate? Well the zeitgeist answer would be that he was trying to communicate a cultural expectation. But if your company goals are service quality and people focus, perhaps that internal culture would be counterproductive? No, this wasn’t an attempt at ongoing cultural change.
Tim specifically reflected that the goal of this communication was to set context. He wants to know that when a specific context is shared, a certain set of behaviours are triggered at scale. For example if an “investor presentation” is announced for a few weeks time, an increasingly large ship needs to transform immediately. The operations team cut costs, HR cancels all off-sites, engineering ships the shiny MVP that wasn’t quite ready. This is not a cultural theme that persists during the year, but instead a carefully communicated and indoctrinated context that dictates specific behaviour.
I suppose most of the time this context, just like culture, is set through repetition. But what if you could construct context more deliberately? If there are 3 regular events that are critical to your business every year, how could you communicate the context of those events in a crystal clear way? For example if you are Apple and your company’s innovation appetite pivots on the annual WWDC event, how do you describe that context to a new hire or even a customer?
Pivot points get a lot of discussion in the startup world, but I think these context events are the pivot points every company needs to know, and communicate heavily and precisely.
Like every great episode of Silicon Valley, it all starts with a whiteboard. Customer (demand) and worker (supply) names are written on the board, with relevant skills and availability scribbled down. Everyone gets on the phones and calls each side, trying to make connections. Every connection is a new possibility, a new thread in the web you’re trying to spin. You’re losing money on every one, but if you’re doing it right they start to become sticky.
This means customers are not just delighted that you introduced them to someone that can solve a problem for them, but that it has the seeds of an ongoing relationship. They enjoy working with the person, they need that problem solved ongoing and (for your benefit at least) they see the value you add as the third wheel.
At worst they appreciate the comfort of having you on the phone to handhold them through the process, at best you are a critical part of the value chain that is hard to replicate without scale. Except you don’t yet have scale so this might cost you big time upfront – software, insurance, data, templates, logistics, call centre etc. Don’t resent the cost, because it’s also your barrier to competition. Watch that burn while you find market fit.
2. The Acquisition Marketing phase
Once the relationships are sticky and your churn is under control, you need to scale quickly to bring your unit cost down and start to pay off that upfront investment (or raise on a growth pitch to kick this can down the road). It’s time to look at the chicken and egg problem of liquidity. What services are not getting traction, and how might each translate into an efficient performance marketing campaign?
You probably have no brand equity, so your performance marketing needs to be very targeted and ideally not competing with established sector players. It’s also tricky to scale, because your segments could be very small and fast moving. 95% of marketplaces are demand constrained, so start by focusing on 1 side only.
Start testing campaign segmentation by customer type first until you get your CPA down to at least breakeven, before trying to solve for secondary variables like geography or availability. You’ll also need to start building a view on Lifetime Value (LTV) by each segment, so eventually you can think about bidding based on Return On Ad Spend (ROAS) or similar metrics. But every customer is different, and so this quickly also becomes a scale challenge that will require marketing data investments.
Don’t purely optimise on cost however, as the goal of this phase is to build number of connections not the number of users. Don’t underestimate power users who create a lot of connections even if they don’t spend a lot, you need to talk to and learn to love these people without becoming too dependant.
This phase is why 50% of startup investor’s money goes to Facebook and Google, you need to learn to love their tools and optimise (aka the sexier “growth hacking”) like crazy. But this needs to be just a phase – if you never graduate then you are at the mercy of the next algorithm change and/or well funded competitor. Don’t become the next GroupOn who spent like crazy here but never graduated.
3. The Product Growth Phase
Also called the Network Effect phase. This is the holy grail, where your product flywheel starts to spin and growth happens organically. There are 3 major things required here.
Finally and foremost – you need to understand what part of those calls in phase 1 relied on the human touch, and what was to overcome objective friction. Pour the gold of your customer service team over the trust issues, and scale the rest in-product with great UX that makes your funnel so intuitive as to be invisible.
Focus relentlessly on removing any friction in making a new connection; this could be through removing double commits, applying data and recommendation engines, teaching your users how their behaviour affects their success, systemically weeding out quality and fraud issues and many more concepts.
Finally you should clearly commit only to verticals where you can be number one. Your next key competitor will play in a narrower not a wider vertical than you, so you need to lead market share not just overall but more importantly in the key customer segments you care about. The network effect is a big moat, but it isn’t the winner takes all endgame it was first thought to be.