This week I attended Slush (startup and tech conference with over 20,000 visitors). Here are my three key takeaways about process, randomness, and trust.
Process and product development
During an onstage discussion about product management and design between Bradley Horowitz (entrepreneur and Google VP) and Irene Au (design partner at Khosla Ventures), Horowitz mentioned how excellent products are often results of excellent processes.
I got the opportunity to ask Horowitz what makes a good product development process become an excellent one. For some time now, I've been trying to wrap my mind around the meaning of process inside design and development teams. I do believe a great process can elevate a team to the next level. However, at the same time I'm cautious about processes that stifle individual and team autonomy.
Horowitz replied to me and the audience by saying that he is allergic to process. He sees the bureaucracy that process builds up within an organization, and given the opportunity, Horowitz will try his best to bust out that bureaucracy.
Horowitz also wants to remind us that the details of an excellent process vary from product to product and organization to organization. You don't build a physical product the same way you build a software product. A company of five people operates in a different way than a company of five thousand people.
Embrace the fact that there is no one right way of doing things. But remember, as Horowitz says, all great processes remove friction–whether that friction is ambiguity or bureaucracy.
You could say that Horowitz's and Au's talk was premised on the belief that product success is a result of premeditated actions of teams and individuals. In other words, you make your own luck.
This is not the story of Slack. During a Q&A session, Cal Henderson (Slack's co-founder and CTO) explained how Slack became to be the quintessential unicorn startup company.
Before Slack, the founding team was a struggling computer game company. They worked together on their ill-fated online game for almost four years. Henderson says that it was a failure from the team's side to work on the game for so long. After the first two years, it was self-evident that the game would not be the success story it needed to be.
However, had they not worked on the game for so long, they wouldn't have built and launched Slack. Inside the game company, the team was using IRC for communication. Gradually they started to build additional interfaces and functionalities for IRC. This was the foundation on top of which Slack was built. If Henderson and his team would have moved on after the first two years, Slack wouldn't exist. At that point, all they had was IRC.
In the startup scene, the common advice is to know when to pivot, or quit and move on. Henderson and his team didn't know when to pivot nor did they know when to quit. Their product kept failing until it was eventually shut down. But because they were too scared or foolish to pull the plug on their game, they now have a company with a valuation of US$7 billion.
I don't really know what to make of this story. Except that your human experience in this world will continue to be ruled by randomness and luck. You will continue to miss-out because you do the smart thing and succeed because you do the wrong thing.
This brings me to my last takeaway from Slush. If you have no idea what to do with your team or your product, then how about just focusing on building trust?
Brian Halligan (CEO of HubSpot) talked about how customers' trust in sales and marketing is at an all time low. This is of course a symptom of a larger erosion of trust in our society. We don't trust our politicians or media. Something that is even more tragic is that more and more people struggle to trust science and medicine–two major cornerstones of human advancement.
But let's bring this idea to a more ordinary, everyday level. Halligan's talk got me thinking about how often do I feel deceived or let down.
I don't mean this as any kind of criticism towards the organizers of Slush (because y'all put a lot of effort and hard work into the event), or towards marketing and promotion in general, but one major issue with many of the Slush talks is that the amount of self-promotion is sometimes a little too much. The talks have catchy headlines and they start out strong but after five minutes in, you sometimes realize that the presenter has moved away from the actual topic and is now going through the different features of their software product. This happened to me a couple of times. And I have to say that it didn't feel nice. I felt betrayed.
Think about your life and those moments, big or small, when you felt that your trust was broken. Maybe you bought something of poor quality, read an article with a clickbait title, got blown off by a new acquaintance. It probably didn't feel nice. It probably sucked.
Now think about how much joy it brings to your life when someone respects your trust. Your customers, your audience, your friends and family are all craving for trust. You can become a more meaningful part in their life by just being more trustworthy. For example, try to be more consistent instead of bending over backwards.
Last week I wrote about my Slush preparations. Even though the event is now over, you might find the post useful for your next big conference. Here is a link to the post.
Big thanks to everyone organizing the conference, all the speakers and all the people who I got to meet during the two days!