A Masterclass on Building Your Company Narrative

Ron Johnson did an amazing interview that you should listen to.

On the surface it’s a guy talking about his failures and successes. On that metric alone this is a solid interview. Great.

On another level, it’s a masterclass in how to do an interview that tells the story you want to tell.

And on a final level it’s one of the best examples I’ve seen of how new & unknown companies can use narratives to get traction, recruit employees, and generally attract resources to their cause.

A quick bit of context on Ron: 1) he was a well known VP @ Target during their ascent, then 2) was hired by Steve Jobs to design/launch/run what we now know as the Apple Stores, and then 3) he left to become the CEO of JC Penney where he failed very publicly and was eventually fired.

Okay, let’s dive in.

Ron is always on script. Any interview with him it’s obvious he’s working for his narrative.

But somehow Alex Blumberg gets him to open up about his JC Penney failure. Alex does such a great job that Ron eventuallys says he’s talked more about it than anywhere else and he wants to move on. I won’t go into those details here, you should just listen.

Next, Ron uses the narrative of “a culture of kindness” to pitch his new company Enjoy (They help people set up new tech purchases (e.g. Sonos) in their homes.)

Alex asks “Why build a company on kindness?”

Before I give Ron’s answer, imagine how you’d answer that question.

Maybe with something along the lines of “Our customers would like it!” or “Because I want to like the people I work with”.

Decent answers!

But you’d be thinking too small.

Remember, Enjoy does tech installations. Boring, home IT support.

So Ron says:

“Because I think [kindness] is why we’re here on the planet, right? We’re here to make life better, not for ourselves, but for our neighbors. The people we come across.”

He just took an IT support company and elevated its mission to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Do to others what you would have them do to you”.

The literal Golden Rule.

Narrative is how you get a team to push the boulder up the mountain. The best leaders always use stories to progress their movement.

Most people don’t want to work for an IT support company.

But a lot of people will get excited to work for a company built on kindness.

Next, talking about his career: “I realized that in my career out of 38 years I probably had 8 great years. But that’s what you work for.”

Ron was @ Target at the height of its popularity and literally created the Apple Store with Steve Jobs, and yet he only “had 8 great years”. WTF?

The point is that the journey is everything.

The joy comes from planting, not harvesting.

Relationships grow from building together, not consuming.

Everything meaningful in life comes from working towards something.

Find something you can build towards. Even if you fail like Ron did @ JC Penney, it’ll feel so much more worthwhile than sitting back watching other people create the world.

Why There’s no Syllabus for Entrepreneurship

This was originally published in my newsletter How It Actually works

Say you’ve decided you want to start your own business. Maybe you hate your boss or you think you have a great idea, whatever.

The next thought that enters your mind is “where do I start?” Where is the roadmap on how to do this the right way?

Our entire lives in school, at work, and with our families we’re explicitly told what we need to do to “succeed”. We’re given step-by-step instructions on what’s expected of us.

But it turns out there’s no syllabus for entrepreneurship.

Sure, other entrepreneurs can tell you what’s worked for them. We can talk about best practices to implement & landmines to avoid. But no one knows for sure exactly what will work for you in your specific business.

Which means you’re going to make mistakes.

You’re going to try new things and most of the time they aren’t going to work out.

But mistakes are normal.

Do you think someone told Steve Jobs or Reed Hastings the step-by-step instructions on how to make Apple or Netflix?

Heck no. They had to screw up a ton to build their companies. I just learned the other day that Netflix tried and failed at producing its own movies when it was still only doing DVD rentals.

And they also had that Qwikster “spin off” of their rental business that they announced, and then changed their mind on.

Big mistakes!

But to compare to the normal world: stop and think about how blasphemous the sentence ‘mistakes are normal’ is in many work and social circles.

In fact, what makes the Netflix failures newsworthy in the first place is the implicit idea that mistakes are always bad.

Learning a language = making mistakes

I lived in Oaxaca, Mexico for 2 years starting when I turned 19. I knew a few Spanish words but otherwise arrived knowing none of the language and had to learn it when I got there.

Learning Spanish was incredibly hard. I studied and practiced 2-3 hours every day. I went out and I talked to people all day long, trying to force myself to learn.

People were nice but they’d often treat me like a child because they couldn’t understand me. And because I spoke so slowly I often couldn’t say most of my thoughts before I was interrupted.

What made it so weird was that in any given day of frustration I couldn’t tell whether I was better than the previous week or month. Progress felt impossible to measure.

But then sometimes I’d run into a friend I hadn’t seen in a few months and they’d immediately react “Wow your Spanish is so much better now!”

That was always a surprise.

Even though we assume we know ourselves best, sometimes it takes someone else to tell us how far we’ve come.

Learning anything = making mistakes

If you went up to a stranger and asked “do you think you can learn a new language without making mistakes?” they’d tell you “Of course not.”

It’s so obvious I hesitate to even write the words.

But in other parts of our lives – work, fitness, learning to play an instrument, meeting new people, dating – we so often avoid mistakes at all costs. We’ll research for 7 hours online to avoid “buying the wrong shoes” or trying to figure out the “perfect” way to socialize at a party.

These things, as in life generally, demand mistakes in order to make progress.

You don’t learn Spanish just by opening your mouth after buying a Rosetta Stone course.

You learn Spanish by saying the wrong Spanish words every day for 2 years.

The mistakes themselves are what teach you. To avoid mistakes is to avoid learning.

This was originally published in my newsletter How It Actually Works.

Why It’s Okay To Do Less & Talk More

This was originally published in my newsletter How It Actually Works

Why I work alone

For a long time I’ve had the strong opinion that talking about doing something is a waste of time.

I’ve been in groups where we’re all talking about making some idea or product, with my internal mental dialogue screaming at me:

”Why aren’t we actually making the thing instead of talking about making the thing?!?!”

This often leads me to abandoning the group and going off to work on my own thing, alone. Then I can control it, I can make it now, and I don’t need to “waste” time convincing others what to do.

(And I wonder why I so often end up working by myself.)

I now believe this is mostly wrong. Especially when making new things.

Why? You need people if you want to make a big thing. You can only do so much yourself.

If people like your ideas they’ll try to help you, or introduce you to people who can help you.

And with every iteration of talking about the idea you actually understand the idea better. A new idea is this delicate thing, a mere thought floating in a single person’s head unprotected from criticism.

As it jumps from human to human it gains strength and permanence. The idea gets refined.

Some of the best entrepreneurs I know are storytellers, meaning they’re good at getting ideas into people’s heads.

A big part of Steve Jobs’s success came from this bucket.

If you look closely enough you’ll find that the CEO of almost any decently sized company is mostly in charge of getting the right ideas into the right heads.

The impossibility of creation

When you see a finished product, whether it’s a piece of media or a physical good, it’s completeness gives it a sense of authority, impossibility, and inevitability.

As if the product appears before its creators fully formed & perfect.

But talk to anyone who’s made anything and you’ll know this is rarely the case. There’s a messy battle of ideas behind the scenes where finishing is the victory and perfectionism is the villain.

But even finishing can feel mediocre. Some creators don’t like their finished products even when the target audience of the product loves it.

For example I’m reading a book about the creation of the show Seinfeld.

One section talks about the writer of the Junior Mint episode, where Jerry accidentally drops a Junior Mint into the open body cavity of a patient in the middle of an operation.

It’s an absurd plot line that would never happen in the “real world” that Seinfeld portends to take place in.

So absurd in fact that the writer himself (a guy named Andy Robin) didn’t like the episode even after it’d gotten rave reviews.

He thought it was totally unbelievable and would ruin Seinfeld itself. From the book:

As the episode proceeded through the production process, Robin was shocked that no one raised an objection. The audience at the taping laughed, but he figured that was just because they were excited to be on the Seinfeld set. He saw the edited version and still hated it. Finally, it aired. And though the public revolt he expected did not happen—many fans and critics loved the episode—he was still certain he had ruined the show. Regardless of what people thought, he still hated the episode. It wasn’t up to his own expectations of himself or of Seinfeld.

And yet the Junior Mint is one of the defining episodes of Seinfeld.

The juxtaposition comes because the creator could see the creation process from the absolute beginning and all we can look at is the finished product.

Imposter Syndrome doesn’t do this justice. The sin is much greater: thinking that great products are made on Mount Zeus by the Gods who are categorically better and distinct from us.

Steve Jobs had a great take on this:

“Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it. You can influence it. You can build your own things that other people can use. And the minute you understand that you can poke life, that if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it…um, that’s maybe the most important thing.” (Full interview here. Quote starts 30 seconds in but listen from the beginning. Emphasis mine.)

Of course all humans are buggy. And yet all the awesome stuff that exists was made by us.

From Andy’s vantage point he couldn’t get over how nonsensical he thought the Junior Mint was. Because he made it by definition it couldn’t live up to the standards of the Seinfeld show.

But for those of us outside of that process we ask ourselves how could the Junior Mint episode possibly be any better?

Start anywhere

Jordan Cooper has a great bit about the process of creation on his blog:

Most people when they have an idea or a vision get caught up in it’s “unrealness”… because it’s so far from being visible and living and breathing. They can’t see how the incremental steps of putting language and resources around it lead to it becoming reality, and as a result… most people don’t try to create stuff from thin air. It’s not easy to understand how just committing to talk about an idea with anyone who will listen is a totally reasonable first step to making that idea reality… for someone who hasn’t done it before, talking might not feel like progress, but the steps to reality are subtle and require faith. (emphasis mine)

Making progress is the most important thing, so if that sometimes all that means is talking to other people then great.

Water your idea, recruit resources around it, and maybe you’ll be so lucky as to one day have fans that think you dreamed it up in a single moment of brilliance.

You’re Probably Already Rich

This was originally published in my newsletter, How It Actually Works.

Whenever I feel like I have something to lose I think about this chart, showing net worth in the US, by age.

Net Worth by Age

Two highlights:

  • If you’re 29 and worth $10k, you have more than 50% of people your age
  • If you’re 34 and worth $250k, you have more than 90% of people your age

And this is in the US! To say nothing of other countries where you’re wealthier than 99.9% of the population.

Some might shout “income equality!”, or try to make you feel guilty.

Instead look at your newly discovered wealth as an opportunity.

A chance to try whatever the hell you want. To take more risks because you’ve already succeeded.

Be grateful, yes. Help others, of course.

But make sure you understand the opportunity you’ve been given.

This was originally published in my newsletter, How It Actually Works

The Supply Chain of Truth

This was originally published in my newsletter, How It Actually Works

Almost everything we know about the world we didn’t learn from the original source.

For example I haven’t done the primary research to prove that protons & electrons exist but I take them for granted because I trust the institutions that taught me: schools, science, etc.

The issue is that today we get so much information that doesn’t come from the old, filtered hierarchies that existed pre-Internet.

So we have to be really careful about who we choose to listen to.

From Hierarchy to Networks

When you read something new consider what path it took to get to you.

Like:

1) Event participant > journalist > New York Times > You

2) Research data > scientist > research paper > training book > gym trainer > you

3) Fox News > facebook > your brother > you

Your choices are to believe the closest node (i.e. the person/thing you’re hearing the information from) or to dig deeper.

When can I trust the closest node, and when do I need to go to the source?

The more general agreement there is on a topic the more you can trust the closest node on the specifics.

To take an extreme example: gravity is well accepted so if you search for details about Newton’s formula you can probably accept the results of some random website.

But when there’s broad disagreement (e.g. how to live a good life, political questions) picking the closest node isn’t a great idea.

My favorite example of this is nutrition. CAN SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT IS ACTUALLY GOOD FOR US TO EAT?

Nutrition is like religion: everyone thinks their version is The Truth and everyone has their favorite success stories that they use as “proof.”

And yet they ignore the dozens of other groups who have their own success stories & whose ideas are mutually exclusive.

Ignore the depth of the supply chain at your peril. If you trust too much in the closest node when everyone disagrees it’s likely that you’ll be wrong.

Instead you have to get to the bottom: talk to the scientists, read the research papers, get as close to the primary source as possible.

Why Don’t We Already Do This

It’s obvious that if you get 10 different answers about the same topic that you should investigate more. And yet so few of us do this.

Because we like to feel comfortable. It’s hard to not be mentally settled. To not be sure about an important topic you care about.

So we often go with the idea that we find first, or that we like the most.

Which is why the people who do make it through get special bonuses in life.

They’re the ones who find a market’s unmet needs, make significant contributions to science, and otherwise get to the truth. Whatever that may be.

Read more like this at my newsletter, How It Actually Works.

Efficiency is an Excuse to Not Do the Actual Work

This was originally published in my newsletter, How It Actually Works

If you’re trying to do something efficiently you’re probably stalling.

Premature optimization is the root of all evil for engineers, but it’s also an excuse that prevents progress in personal goals.

Looking for efficiency in daily life is similar to seeking “the best way” of doing something.

And it’s insidious because the logic isn’t all that bad…

“If I’m going to try and lose weight, I might as well do it in the best and most efficient way possible, right?”

Wrong!

You need momentum. You need progress. You need forward movement happening right now.

The importance of morale is vastly underestimated.

”I want to lose weight, what are the best exercises to do?”

Get down RIGHT THIS SECOND and start doing push ups. Go for a run in whatever clothes you already own.

”I want to start a SaaS business, what stack should I use?”

Pick up the phone and call 10 potential customers to see if they want the thing.

”There might be a parking space closer to the entrance, I’ll keep looking”

There’s tons of parking 50 feet back, pick a spot and just walk.

”I want to sell an online course. What’s the best way to make a website?”
Send 5 emails right now to the first 5 people you can think of who might need this. Do not write templates – bang out the email and hit send. If they actually need the product they won’t care about typos.

”I want to be a photographer, I wonder what gear I should buy.”

Use your iPhone.

So much “work” is merely distracting ourselves from the reality: we have no customers, we don’t know what people want, we don’t have a sales channel, and on and on.

This was originally published in my newsletter, How It Actually Works

What Stories Do You Tell Yourself That Aren’t True?

This was originally published in my newsletter How It Actually Works

How much of your view of the world is based on stories and narratives?

We hear things like:

  • the economy is good/bad
  • X actor’s career is dying (based on 1 movie)
  • buying a house is a good investment

…and often take them at face value.

Too much of what we think we understand about the world is from a narrative we’ve absorbed without examining the underlying data.

You can disocver this trap by attempting to explain the details of an idea that you internalized as a story.

This happened to me on a phone call last week.

I was chatting with a Disney executive friend who works in Beijing, and asked him what he thought about China’s competitiveness with the US.

It’s a big topic these days and something you hear about semi frequently: China is working harder, moving faster, growing more, etc.

(All narratives.)

So I asked him, Are they doing better than the US?

And his stupid simple response made me pause: “What do you mean by ‘doing better’ ?”

Uh…. And I hesitated, because I had to actually think about it.

What exactly did I mean by “they work harder”? Or that they’re “more innovative?”

What does it even mean for one country to be “doing better” than another?

I had an opinion built from a story I’d consumed by reading hundreds of tweets, headlines, articles, etc., but never from looking at actual data.

We fall to narratives all the time. This is why people do things like buy houses and go to law school.

(Wanna be THAT GUY at a dinner party? Ask someone the top 3 specific changes their favorite politician would enact if they won office. Most people can barely name 1.)

Ask yourself: what stories do you accept as reality about the world?

Maybe it’s that tech is too powerful and needs regulation.

Or that San Francisco would fix its problems by building more housing.

Or that entrepreneurship is sexy and worthwhile.

To be clear I’m not saying whether these things are true or not. I’m saying be cognizant of how you come to your conclusion, and beware how much of that is just a narrative you’ve accepted without doing critical thinking on your own.

Same Facts, Different Story

There’s a similar mistake we make which is having widely different interpretations of reality based on nearly identical facts.

Take a game of basketball that’s won by a single point.

After the game the commentators always have some “analysis” or opinion of what mattered in the game and led to victory.

Ask yourself how would their comments change if, instead of losing by a point, that same team had won by a point.

You know the story would be different.

The importance of players on the winning team would grow, the significance of the losers’ mistakes would be magnified, the talk about which players should be traded or let go would change, etc.

Yet the facts between the two outcomes is identical but for a single extra point!

3 Women World Leaders

In a different universe we’d have the narrative of 3 simultaneous, powerful women leaders in Western democracies:

  • The 1st woman President of the United States, Hillary Clinton
  • The 1st woman Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel
  • The 2nd woman Prime Minister of Great Britain, Theresa May

Women increasing in influence, opportunity, etc., would be a big narrative.

And First Woman President Follows First Black President is a headline that literally would have made the history books.

But yet again the factual differences between that headline and what actually happened on election day is minuscule: a mere 80,000 votes.

Trump could have died on November 9th without a day in office, and the narrative about the United States would still have been fundamentally different than had Clinton won.

Instead of headlines about multiple women leaders in powerful countries, and the transition of US presidential power from one minority to another, we saw headlines like “An American Tragedy”.

Like a game where the winner wins by a single point, the facts are almost identical but the story that gets told is completely different.

It’s cliche but the word story makes up most of history. And history is just the emphasis of certain facts over others.

Stories You Tell About Yourself

This happens everywhere, e.g. in headlines based on the same research study.

But a more interesting example is that you do this to yourself.

We tell stories about ourselves constantly: about how successful we are (or aren’t), about why we have certain preferences, about our own personalities.

Are you “lazy” or do you “work smart, not hard”?

Are you “introverted and shy”, or “someone who makes friends intentionally”?

Try this exercise:

Tell yourself 2 different versions of your career narrative.

Try one version where e.g. you’ve worked hard, made smart choices, minimized mistakes, and overcome a myriad of struggles.

Then try the total opposite where maybe you got a few lucky breaks, you happened to meet the right people at the right time, and you were in a field that was already growing.

Which one do you prefer? Does it matter?

So Anything Goes?

“So Trevor are you saying I should dig for the “true” story? Or that I can make up any story that best suits my needs? What the hell is your point?”

My point is to be cognizant of what information you have stored as a story.

Sometimes there are multiple narratives that are equally valid. And sometimes there aren’t! (i.e. there’s no reason to rerun the experiments that led to the periodic table! That story checks out.)

But other times there’s more accurate or improved stories we can tell about the world and about ourselves if only we’re self-aware enough to notice.

Read more about this in my newsletter How It Actually Works.

Why You Should Ignore Every Founder’s Story About How They Started Their company

This was originally published in my newsletter How It Actually Works.

Founding Stories Are Myths

Company founding stories are almost always non-malicious lies. Take Netflix:

Reed Hastings has said many times that he got the idea for Netflix because he once was charged a $40 late fee on Apollo 13.

That didn’t actually happen.

It’s unfortunate because it will inevitably mislead anyone learning how to start a company.

Sam Walton’s Overnight Success

Sam was already 44(!) when he opened the first Walmart and had been running his own retail stores for over 15 years.

He wondered why people focused on the beginning of Walmart:

Somehow over the years folks have gotten the impression that Walmart was something I dreamed up out of the blue as a middle-aged man, and that it was just this great idea that turned into an overnight success… Like most overnight successes, it was about 20 years in the making

If you’re trying to build your own thing & you want to learn from “the founder of Walmart”, looking at the start of the company itself is stupid because at that point he already had 15 years of experience

So let’s start with Sam’s very first store.

The Biggest Mistake Of Sam’s Professional Life

Sam started his retail career at 27 buying his 1st store, a “Ben Franklin” variety store franchise.

As a beginner he relied on the franchise’s playbook but also incorporated his own experiments.

Things like:

  • putting popcorn & ice cream machines in front of the store to drive traffic
  • doing huge discounts but actually making it up in volume (i.e. not ironically)
  • buying directly from manufactures instead of going through the franchise (which allowed for cheaper prices)

He worked hard on that single store for 5 years, grew sales 3.5x to $250k/year and became the #1 Ben Franklin franchisee in his six-state region.

But then he found out he’d made a gigantic mistake.

When he signed the store lease he didn’t include an option to renew it.

The owner (a local department store competitor) saw his success & refused to renew the lease at any price, thereby forcing Sam to shut down the store.

Imagine working on something for 5 years straight, becoming the best at it, and then having a single person end it all.

Sam was devastated:

It was the lowpoint of my business life. I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me… I had built the best variety store in the whole region and worked hard in the community – done everything right – and now I was being kicked out of town. It didn’t seem fair. I blamed myself for ever getting suckered into such an awful lease, and I was furious at the landlord.

He was mad, but he accepted responsibility:

I’ve always thought of problems as challenges, and this one wasn’t any different… I had to pick myself up and get on with it, do it all over again, only even better this time.

If Facebook or Google change their algorithms you at least get to keep your old customer base and your business assets.

But with a retail store you have none of that.

And because of the structure of the town they couldn’t just open another store somewhere nearby.

The Waltons literally had to pack up their family of 6 and go find a new town.

If he’d wanted to Sam had plenty of reasons to sulk: they were starting all over in a smaller town (Bentonville) that also had its fair share of competition (3 other variety stores).

But Sam said “it didn’t matter much because I had big plans.”

Unsexy Determination

Sam spent the next 12 years in what I call narrative lingo.

It’s the crucial part of any “overnight success” that doesn’t get covered in the Successful Entrepreneur genre.

No one writes about all the random tangents and mistakes you make here.

Like, say, that time Sam tried to start a shopping mall 10 years too early and lost $25,000?

Or what about the time a tornado destroyed his best performing store? All he had to say was “we just rebuilt it and got back at it.”

This is important to know if you’re trying to learn from Sam, but it doesn’t fit into any narrative.

The lesson here is that there will be mistakes and problems on any path to success. As a recent book title says, those obstacles are the way itself.

A coworker said Sam excelled here because he woke up every day “determined to improve something”, and that he was

less afraid of being wrong than anyone I’ve ever known…Once he sees he’s wrong, he just shakes it off and heads in another direction.

You don’t get any of this from Reed Hastings when he talks about $40 late fees. You think “oh I need a great idea” when the reality is the idea is nothing and your psychology & persistence is everything.

Eventually Sam got to 15 stores & by 1960 was the largest independent variety store operator in the US, doing a a total of ~$12M (in 2018 dollars) in annual revenue.

It Would Seem Obvious

It was here that Sam finally saw the opportunity for much bigger discount stores and got to work on the 1st Walmart.

He was the most successful independent operator in the US & had 15 years of experience in retail, surely it should have been easy for him to raise money from investors…?

Wrong.

Sam asked other store owners, entrepreneurs, competitors… basically everyone said no.

He got a measily 5% from his own brother & a store manager and had to borrow the other 95% (signing their house and all their other stores as collatoral).

Even the great Sam Walton couldn’t find investors to start the 1st Walmart, on the back of a near-perfect record in retail.

The 1st Wal-Mart

Finally, the point where most people look at to learn, is the end of our story.

The 1st Walmart was an ugly retail store (8-foot ceilings, concrete floor, wooden fixtures) but it worked because Walmart’s prices always beat competitors.

(Even the name “Walmart” was selected with customer prices in mind: it was cheaper to buy neon signs for 7 letters than the longer names Sam considered.)

And you think Sam cared 2 cents about what anyone else thought about his stores?

The New York Times doesn’t mention Sam or Walmart until 1969, 7 years after the 1st store opening, and he’s just one random quote in the back of the paper:

And the Walmart 1970 IPO got a single mention on page 44 of the Times:

If you want to learn from entrepreneurs, look at the start not the finish.

Read more stories like this in my newsletter How It Actually Works.