Qwilr is built on the following three principles:
- Undeniable Bestness
- Velocity With Valour
- Clarity Through Collaboration
This is the moral and intellectual code by which I hope our company will run, thrive and ultimately win.
(PS: You can read here why this document is about Principles and not "Culture").
I believe the right way to win in business and in life, is to win by simply being the best. Irrefutably, the best.
Not by taking hack shortcuts, not by social engineering or political machination, or short-term hot-air strategies, but by working resolutely and systemically to become the best. And not just the best, but the Undeniable Best, a superiority which once experienced, cannot be argued with.
As this applies to building our business: we will not win our race by having particular media organisations cover us, or by schmoozing the right people or shaking the right hands, or having the cleverest pricing schemes, or releasing 100 new features in a month, or raising the most money. All of these things are important, they matter, but to build a large and sustainable business in the long term we can only win by creating something that is undeniably the best, across all dimensions of our business and our company: the best teams, the best product, the best marketing, the best sales, the best customer experience, the best minds at work.
Investing in Undeniable Bestness is an investment in the long term and this means resisting the temptation of short term gains. These give us an illusion of progress but are actually accruing a kind of value debt. Don't believe the hype, nothing is free. When we take shortcuts around delivering real value, it means we will need to pay down that debt at some point in the future - and if we fail to do so, and debt grows too large, we will default.
Undeniable Bestness means being hard on ourselves and have strong personal benchmarks of quality. It means accommodating to a permanent state of dissatisfaction. I believe this dissatisfaction is a good thing. It keeps us productive. It keeps us pushing ourselves forward. Whenever we reach a summit, we’re already looking to the next one.
Not only is this an honourable way to win the race of life and of commerce, but it also creates the most value in the long term. In our company and in our lives.
Following this credo does not mean that everything we do must be the ultimate and final possible word in perfection, but rather that everything we do should represent a meaningful step forward. A step toward that horizon of excellence.
Velocity With Valour
There is the old adage: “perfect is the enemy of done”.
One might argue that following the principle of Undeniable Bestness we might become victims of perfection and lose all important velocity. So how do we square Undeniable Bestness with the pragmatic need to move fast?
The first question is: why move fast at all? Because time is the most precious thing we have. The more of it we have, the more we can learn about what constitutes real value for our market. And the more we learn about that, the more fully can embody and deliver this value. The more value we deliver, the happier and more loyal our customers are and so finally, the more successful we are as a business.
To learn where real value lies, we need to try things. In startup parlance we need to “run experiments”. Moving fast means we increase the surface area of our experimentation across time. So we learn faster, discover value earlier and deepen that value for our customers. It’s a positive feedback loop.
The second question is: well if that’s all true, why don't we just completely optimise for speed? I'd argue that if we move too fast, if we go too deep on velocity and compromise too heavily on quality, then we destroy the validity of our experiments.
Suppose we’re trying to test a value proposition with this mindset. We build, release, market and sell something fast. Really fast. So fast that its execution is well below our internal benchmarks of quality (i.e our pursuit of Undeniable Bestness) and our market gives a tepid response. Does that mean the proposition doesn’t hold value for our market? I don’t believe it does. Along with the rapid pace that a minimum viable product mentality encourages, there is also I believe, an antagonistic requirement for minimum viable quality. MVP thinking is no excuse for lazy execution.
Balancing these two questions, the tradeoff between quality and velocity, is perhaps the single most defining challenge of building a startup. And while there is no cut and dry answer to that tradeoff I do believe there is a middle road, which we can call "Velocity With Valour". Move as fast as honour (aka the quality of execution) will permit.
There are two primary aspects to walking this middle road:
- Quality to match fidelity: We can move faster if we test at low fidelities to start. But low fidelity does not equate to low quality of execution. We should aim to excel at each level of fidelity. Picasso could achieve a heck of a lot with just a single squiggly line - and we too can achieve a lot with just a customer conversation, a paper model or a landing page.
- Be judicious about what we test at higher fidelities: as we climb up the levels of fidelity, the time investment for each level becomes greater and greater. This scale is not linear either - it jumps in orders of magnitude. Going from paper models to a basic coded prototype might be ten times the investment. And from basic mockups to beta features, another multiple of ten. Supporting marketing efforts and production readiness, another multiple after that. And the burden of customer success and support of a feature’s lifetime, perhaps another multiple of ten thereafter. So, as the level of test fidelity increases, we need to be increasingly judicious as to whether we should actually do this test. If we take everything in “test everything” too literally, we will produce so many things of such a low quality, that we will end up testing nothing at all.
Clarity Through Collaboration
I once heard something very interesting about ants: a single ant, wandering around the world, has practically no idea where the nest is. He ambles around, essentially blind, with a very vague direction of home. But ants can follow the pheromonal scent trail of other ants. So with ten ants bumbling about, the collective sense of direction improves. And then when you get a whole army of ants together, they form this very precise and durable homing beacon. Their individual lack of clarity is subsumed by their collective intelligence. You can probably see where this is going…
Everyone is fallible * - from the newest graduates, to the most senior employees, to founders and investors and beyond.
This critical factor in the success of our company is right there in the word itself: company. Business building is a collective enterprise. One in which our individual lack is subsumed and made whole by our collective.
Harnessing collective intelligence requires each individual contributor to make their ideas and their reasoning as clear as possible to the rest of the group. If I am not able to articulate my thoughts with clarity, I can't help us find the right direction home.
Clarity, on an individual level, is the critical ingredient for effective collaboration. And effective collaboration is the critical ingredient for clear company thinking.
I think there are a few basic ideas and pieces of etiquette to ensure that we collaborate with maximum clarity:
- Know Thyself: The larger the group in a meeting, the more valuable that time is. i.e. It's a productivity multiple of everyone in attendance, a tradeoff of being in the meeting against the work they could all be doing. So treat this high value time with respect and use it to express your clarified thoughts. If you are formulating thoughts as you speak, a smaller group, or a one-on-one would be a better use of time. If you have nothing to add, add nothing. Unclarified thoughts can lead our ant trail astray. Now this is just a rule of thumb, there are group forums and situations (i.e. brain-storming during a Story planning session) where this does not apply.
- Default To Not Knowing: come from a default place of not-knowing, rather than a default of knowing. That is, taking a position in the form of: “I think we should make the text bigger, because (a) it's the most important thing to understand on this page, and (b) people will likely absorb the meaning of the text before the icon”. This is a tangible argument that others can build on top of, with agreement as well as disagreement: “I’d actually disagree with (a) since I think the call-to-action might be the most important thing on the page”. You can contrast that with statements in the form of: “This is wrong. The text should be bigger”. This portrays things in a categorical manner and shuts down potentially valuable intellectual debate.
- The Capstone Question: The purpose of debate and discussion is to surface different viewpoints and arguments available for consideration. This is the bedrock of effective collaboration. But closing a discussion is important too, especially the open ended kind. A discussion is over when the available points of view in the group have been expressed and understood by all. At that point a balanced decision can be made. So the capstone question for a discussion is: “has everyone been heard and have we all understood?”.
* For the philosophically inclined: yes, I acknowledge the inherent paradox of claiming that “everyone is fallible” with a degree of certainty :)
Balancing These Principles
Like most sets of principles, if you are dogmatic in following any one particular principle, eventually that principle will come into conflict with another. Go too far with one imperative and you will unbalance others.
Balancing the principles set out here will be an ongoing exercise. One in which I don’t think there is a “correct balance”, but rather a correct balance for a particular time and state of the company.
Growing Our Principles
I once heard something that got me thinking: “culture is the sum of the people you hire”.
I think this is true. That complex thing which is “culture” (the thing which words cannot adequately capture or document) really is just that: the sum of the people we surround ourselves with in the course of building our business.
If these principles reflect our ideals, then the most important thing we can do is try to hire and surround ourselves with people who embody them. Those who:
a) Pursue excellence in whatever they do. Someone who strives for Undeniable Bestness whether in the obvious fields of academic achievement, or less obvious ones like maintaining a blog or just driving a project from idea to fruition to adoption, or even less obvious like becoming a world champion scrabble player. Self-motivated drive and passion underlies all of these things. (Perhaps even more so the less “obvious” they are).
b) Knows how to trade-off between perfection and Getting Things Done. Some folks sit around theorising endlessly about starting and yet never start, some get paralysed in the prototype stage and never release. Others (the kind that we want around) leave in their wake a trail of projects that speak for themselves and stand on their own feet.
c) Enjoys, values and contributes to intellectual debate. Some folks get defensive, or shut-down, or aggressive when their ideas and positions are questioned. They confuse interrogation of ideas with an attack on them personally. Others relish playing with ideas. These are our people. Those who are curious, who love to question, and to examine, and re-examine. Those are intellectually flexible. Who get energy from the possibility of turning their own paradigms upside down and turfing them if they do not hold water.
A Start Not An End.
The principles are just a starting point, not an end. We aren't looking for those who embody these principles in a rigid or ossified way - but those who will build upon them, grow them and evolve them: challengers, inventors and pioneers.
Gathering that tribe, only our imaginations will limit what we're capable of achieving.
Onwards and Upwards,
CEO & Co-Founder @ Qwilr.