Lost in translation: What I learned from my wife about why companies exist.
My wife Sabine is German.
Despite my last name suggesting that I was born in Germany too, I was born in the US (Seattle) and learned to speak German after I met her. In a lot of ways beyond language, she’s made me a way better person, dad and leader.
One example of how she’s made me better in my work is pretty simple.
When I first met her in Germany in 2006, her English was good, but nowhere near what it is today. I was in college at the time and I’ll never forget a conversation we had. We were talking about what I wanted to do after college and I said that I’d like to start my own business. As the conversation progressed, she asked me a question I’ll never forget:
“What do you call the people that is the reason a company exists?”
Thinking I knew so much about business, I responded back with a few answers:
She looked at me puzzled and said:
“No-no. The people for which a company must exist.”
I sat there in silence and thought for a while...
Fast forward to today and I’m currently working with 5 founders of different B2B Software companies ranging in topics from an operating system for robotic fleets to cloud manufacturing as-a-service. As I get started with founders, we tend to focus on figuring out the current state of growth and where they are struggling in Go-to-Market the most. Having usually just raised a round of funding, a lot of founders are wired to quote how fast their revenue is growing or how many employees they have, but very few are able to articulate some of the most fundamental questions:
“Who does my company serve?”
“What problem does my company exist to solve?”
“Why should my company exist?”
“What problem in the world (that’s bigger than my piece of software) will be a problem for a really long time?”
When I realize that the founders struggle with these questions, I do something that almost all of the founders I work with hate. I ask them to work with me on aligning their company through organizational clarity.
For the people out there that don’t believe in this, you might not be ready. For those that are, I’m going to try and walk you through what I believe to be the most valuable framework for helping companies unlock potential and really serve the market in which they want to exist.
Step 1: Understanding Internal Variance
To help companies figure out how aligned they are in terms of what they want to achieve, you can create a very simple internal survey that asks all employees the following questions:
What is our mission?
What is the problem that we exist to solve in the world?
Who do we serve?
Who is our target customer?
Define our culture.
What makes working at our company special? How do we act as a team?
What do we do?
Elevator pitch; describe the product or service!
What is important right now?
What are the 2-3 key objectives that we are trying to achieve as a company in the next 2 quarters?
Depending on the stage of the company and speed at which the company has grown to date, the responses can vary quite a bit.
Step 2: Agree... for now.
One thing that we believe in at Polychrome is that nothing is set in stone; so things can change.
As you get the results back as a leadership team, the emotions can range from “how are we so far off as a team!?” to “wow, that’s better than I thought we’d be.” Wherever you are at, the goal in the next 2 weeks should be to get to a collective answer on these questions that you feel great about...for now.
A few tips about each of the questions:
Mission: Don’t choose something that people can’t get behind as being realistic for what you actually do. Double check it with your engineering team (great skeptics) and customers (who you are trying to serve anyway) for sanity checks. You will likely have versions that are very lofty and very boring...aim to strike the middle, but be honest with yourself. If you don’t save the manatees...that’s all good, you can still solve a problem in the world that matters to someone.
Example of a company that we run: Flagsmith.com
Mission: Empower any engineering team to ship faster and continuously improve their products.
Why: we chose not to mention the product, feature flags, but rather the problem we exist to solve for our customers. That problem exists before and after our product and allows us to solve more problems with content, products and services down the line that they are facing.
Who we serve: A lot of founders are forced to get honest with themselves that the people their company exists to serve are pretty different from themselves. This is especially true as you grow beyond early adopters. If you are struggling, find a way to be genuine to yourself while still serving your customers or your market...and hire people on your leadership team that augment your weakness here.
Define your culture: if you haven’t already, one good idea here is to send a separate survey to all of your employees. Ask them to highlight their colleagues and the values that they have and how that represents your company. You’ll LOVE reading this stuff and your team will love celebrating these values.
What do we do: Ask customers to explain how they would describe your product and why they bought it. You might be surprised that it’s different from what you think.
What is important right now: Some are big into OKRs, others aren’t. I’m a fan of whatever is lightweight and gets people focused on the day-to-day. The most important thing is that everyone on the team understands how their work supports what the company exists to accomplish.
If you don’t love the answer you arrive at for one of these topics, agree to revisit them as a leadership team in 3 months. Push your team to agree on something that is close, but not perfect and commit to the process of improving it over time.
Now that you’ve agreed on these five critical questions as a leadership team, it’s time to get to work!
Step 3: Go!
Now that you know the answers to these questions, take a quick inventory of your efforts as a company. Are you living up to those answers? How are you reinforcing that in your day-to-day? Here are some simple ideas on how to start aligning your company:
All-Hands: If you have a regular Friday meeting to wrap-up the week, highlight things you noticed people doing that support the reason why you exist and how you want the team to be acting day-to-day.
Marketing: Take a look at your homepage. Does it speak to the people that you exist as a company to support? If you aren’t ready for that, look at the last 5 pieces of content that your team produced. Do they line-up?
Sales: Is your sales team doing outbound? If so, do they have educational content that helps the people in your space improve even if they aren’t ready to buy your software? Remember - Flagsmith isn’t a feature flagging company. We are a company that helps engineering teams ship faster and continuously improve their products...we can help customers with content & thought leadership just as much as with our software. Once they are ready to use feature flags and they feel that we’ve provided value in their work life, I’m sure they’ll consider us.
Product: Look at which customers and prospects your product team is interviewing for feedback on the next product release. Is it the person that you exist to solve problems for? This can be extremely painful to make these trade-offs, but if you have chosen the right person/industry to solve problems for, your company will build amazing products.
Hiring: When you look at the next 5 hires you are planning, do they move you closer to being the company in your space that solves important problems? Are you staffing for experts in your field to go deeper? Does your org chart align to this?
If you find an area in your business where the answer is “no - this doesn’t align”, adjust those efforts and work towards that together with your team. Hold your team and yourself accountable to living up to these new standards. BTW - if you are having issues between teams (marketing & sales, product & go-to-market), this misalignment is often the root cause. Let these answers be the tiebreaker.
My experience with this in my career
When I joined Amplitude, we didn’t really have a common focus externally except to beat our nearest venture-backed competitor. In choosing a competitor as our benchmark, we were basically saying to our team that “we exist to provide incrementally better analytics than what the market is currently using”. While this type of a focus definitely helped the company in the early days, it didn’t set the direction for where we wanted to take the market long-term. The good news was that our CEO, Spenser, invested a ton of time and energy with the leadership team at off-sites to get our alignment right. We talked about it regularly until we got it to a point that we could act on it. After a while, we decided as a leadership team to choose a problem in the world to solve that was bigger than our competition...our mission became to “Help Companies Build Better Products”. Sounds pretty basic, right? That’s the best part!
Because of the simplicity, everyone remembered it and it narrowed our focus to Product Managers...the people inside of companies that struggle to do this day-in and day-out. As a company, we agreed that we wanted to be thought leaders to help PMs and Product Teams improve at their job...regardless of whether they bought our software or not.
Take a second and compare the breadth of topics that we could talk about with the competitor analytics mission vs. the build better products mission. As a company, we could really invest into the problem of the customers that we existed to serve vs. just building an incrementally better product.
This alignment permeated through the company and showed up in everything we did. Instead of us outbounding prospects to take a demo of our incrementally better product, we now created full experiences focused on Product Managers learning and invited them to attend events with industry peers. Our content transformed into detailed playbooks and how-tos on topics that were tangential to analytics, but critical to creating better products. We were living up to what we wanted to be in the market. The results spoke for themselves and the company is still executing on a version of this mission today.
One of the coolest experiences as a leader at Amplitude was when we would ask the company “why does Amplitude exist?” and just about everyone at the company would respond in unison “to help companies build better products”.
In the end, everyone that spends 8+ hours a day on anything wants it to matter and wants it to be about something more than just the product they are selling. After working in companies for the last 15 years, I now know what my wife was trying to ask me way back then... it’s the customers and their problems that allow a company to exist. By getting everyone in your team aligned on that fact and by de-prioritizing the noise of your last fund raise, I’m sure you can have a similar story to tell.
Polychrome is a new type of investment firm. Our mission is to help companies unlock the next level of growth through our GTM expertise. Check us out at polychromecapital.com