Celebrate the Small Things
Celebrating the Small Things is the fifth and final post in a five part series called ”Enjoying the Ride.” Comparing a start-up to surfing, this is a simple guide to turn your grueling start-up battle into a more soul fulfilling experience by helping you battle the sets and pick the right waves so you can enjoy the ride.
“When you overcome the fear and all the elements that are working against you and ride one of those waves, there is a feeling of gratification and accomplishment that is beyond words.” ~ Greg Long (big wave surfer)
Beating your numbers feels good. It’s such a binary understanding that everyone, from employee to investor, can grasp. And your success against your own predictions is the industry’s way of saying “this company is killing it” or worse, “they are struggling.”
But should it be?
I spent a lot of time at Contour feeling the joy of beating, and the pain of missing, our own numbers. People got worked up at the end of every quarter based on our performance, when the only number that really mattered was how much cash was in the bank. Having to explain lower than expected numbers is never a fun conversation, but for the rest of the organization it meant they had nothing to celebrate. All the work they did went for nothing because outside of the sales team they had minimal impact on the numbers. Most people don’t have a budget and they don’t sell, which means they have an indirect impact on the financial results.
The elation or disappointment around the quarterly numbers was masking the real question.
Are we getting better?
Building a great company or being an amazing surfer isn’t like playing a team sport. There is no trophy you walk away with or a championship you can try for again if you lose. There isn’t a fixed time you play or rules that define how the game is played. It’s an ever changing quest that has no timeline and no clear definition of victory. And the only thing that tells you if you are improving is how you feel.
When you talk to people who have surfed their whole lives they don’t talk about the wins they had or the expectations they beat. They describe beautiful pictures about the journey, about the moments they remember with their friends, about the conditions on a particular day, about the power of the wave under their board, about the near misses, or about how surfing fills their soul. Getting better is a life quest, while improving is a confidence you gain wave by wave, set by set, session by session. It can’t be measured, but it can be felt.
Now that my time is over with Contour I don’t always remember the quarterly numbers or how we did against our own expectations. I don’t remember what our annual objectives were or what we talked about at every board meeting. What I do remember are the too few times we celebrated the journey. I remember the happy hours, the company parties, the lunches to welcome a new employee. I remember our product launches and the excitement when great reviews got emailed around the office. I remember the company pride people shared attending events and trade shows. A list of things I remember that rarely had anything to do with our numbers.
Yes, numbers are important and you will never get away from quarterly projections or investor expectations. As long as you are building a growth company your success will be measured by how “up and to the right” you are. Beyond the numbers proving frequent employee reviews, clear quarterly objectives, a consistent vision, and values, they help in keeping your whole team on the same page.
But even if you do all of this, which is expected, people will still wonder if you’re getting better. Seeing numbers on a chart or passing out a few beers at a company meeting isn’t memorable. It’s what everyone does.
What’s memorable are the things you celebrate. It’s the small ways you make people feel appreciated or the small ways you help people feel the wave of momentum the company is creating. Helping people feel the journey is a critical part of your job and something most entrepreneurs overlook. Because most of us are intrinsically motivated, celebrating before our life’s work is done doesn’t make much sense, something I often struggled with.
But to everyone else it matters. And when your time is done and the company is gone, it’s one of the few things you will take with you.
Celebrate the People
We all need recognition. This may be hard for entrepreneurs to believe and it may even drive you nuts that people need positive confirmation of the work they are doing, but get over it. If you want to lead people you have to keep them inspired for a very long time, doing their best work.
Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who created Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, explains why esteem, to be valued and respected, is one of our basic human needs. What Maslow goes on to say is that there are two types of esteem. The first is the desire for personal achievement, adequacy, mastery, and competence, which gives us self confidence and ultimately personal freedom. The second is the desire for reputation, respect from other people, which includes status, dominance, recognition, attention, importance, and appreciation.
Knowing people need some form of recognition, doesn’t mean you have to run around congratulating everyone, nor does it mean you have to call everyone out publicly at a company meeting. Not everyone wants public recognition for their work and it’s not your job to do all the congratulating. Instead your job is to create a culture that helps people appreciate one another.
I have found two areas to focus on. The first is creating an environment where people can do their best work. One of the reasons people join a start-up is to have an impact and they can’t do that if they are unable to make decisions on their own. Too often at Contour plans were passed down to people instead of being built with the team from the ground up. By the time people got their assignment it was just that, an assignment. The best example I have found is Valve, a software company based here in Bellevue, Washington. Their employee handbook is a must read and from it you can see that their entire premise is to create a place where people can do their best work.
The second area is to appreciate people in small ways. From the time they join the company to the time they leave, you want to celebrate their accomplishments along the way. Ideas on how to do this:
- Make their first day amazing. Before they show up have a computer ready, desk arranged, people available to help them, and everyone in the company knowing what their role is. If someone’s first day is disorganized it makes them feel undervalued from the second they arrive.
- Anniversaries are like birthdays, don’t miss them. People spending a year or multiple years at the company is a big deal.
- Give them the tools they need. It doesn’t mean everyone gets Mac screens, but before you hire people make sure you can afford the tools they need, otherwise they become frustrated they can’t do their job and instead of concentrating on the work they are wasting time with equipment that doesn’t work.
- Constantly give feedback! It’s easy to get lazy and put off annual reviews, but don’t. And don’t put off telling people you thought they did a good job or you thought their work was great. A simple “thank you” or “congratulations” in person (not on email) goes a long way.
- Buy people food. Eating is a great way to put down the laptop and say thank you.
Keep it fresh. However you celebrate people, be creative about it and don’t make it a pattern or people will assume you are just doing it to check off a box.
Celebrate the Company
You probably aren’t building Rome, but you are building a company and building a great one takes an army of people. I’m not just talking about the employees. It takes investors, customers, lawyers, partners, family members, vendors, etc. to make the journey a success. The reality is that most of the people involved in your company won’t retire in luxury from their involvement. The odds of success are so minute that most of them will walk away with nothing more than the memories of the journey.
As the leader, it’s your job to make everyone feel involved. No different than celebrating the people, you have to come up with ways for people to follow the journey, brag about your success, and create a deeper relationship with the company.
But what items do you celebrate?
The first way is to create public events everyone can attend. I still have goose bumps from standing on stage at my first Zumiez 100K. Despite being a public company Zumiez, an action sports retailer, puts on an annual two-day event that celebrates everyone involved with the brand. The founder and CEO get on stage to talk about the company, the successes for the year, and what is in store for next year. All of the Zumiez employees are dressed in ridiculously awesome costumes and the top 10 sales people are rewarded with public recognition and massive gifts. The founder of every brand is invited to go on stage in front of thousands of people to personally say thank you. Athletes are invited on stage to give their own shout-out and engage with the employees. And everyone mingles together in a massive after-party.
Granted, a start-up can’t afford this. But then again, Zumiez has been doing this since they started some 35 years ago and I’m sure the initial event was not nearly the spectacle it is now. They have alway believed that everyone should be involved in the success of the company.
The second way is to celebrate small wins on a daily basis that go beyond your numbers. Items that are consistent with the company values is a great way to constantly remind people what is important. Just remember to be selective about which events are worth sharing outside of the company or you risk inundating people with victories that are hard to grasp if they aren’t living the battle with you everyday. Some ideas include:
- Document the journey. You are creating history and you can’t remember it without pictures, videos, and documents of what happened. It’s great material to pass on to people who weren’t there.
- Decorate the office with accomplishments. Putting up press clippings or customer quotes is a great way to remind people of the company success.
- Collect and pass around positive reviews. Third party acknowledgements are great bragging rights, especially from end customers and editors.
- Customer wins. Getting new customers is motivating, but just remember to let people know if you lose a customer too. No one likes to be bragging about your awesome new customer to find out down the road from someone else they are no longer a customer.
- Completing projects. Yes, product announcements are the easiest, but even celebrating the completion of small projects is important.
- Sharing prototypes. People love to see the new ideas being worked on so sharing visual work as it’s being completed is incredibly motivating.
- Successful events are filled with photos and stories people who didn’t attend would love to know about.
- Marketing campaigns, especially successful ones that move the needle are visual and help people grasp the message we are sharing with the world.
- Happy hour (yes, cliche) is still a great way for people to connect and share the projects they are working on.
It means a whole lot more when the whole company takes time out of their busy day to enjoy the milestones, especially if the celebrations are during working hours and outside of the office. And don’t forget to invite significant others, they are quietly the most important aspect of employee success.
Building greatness is hard and there may be a lot of days when you feel like you are going backwards instead of forwards. But that is part of the journey and helping people appreciate the ride is one of your most important jobs.
Yes, company updates give people the information they need, but feeling the momentum is even more important. Especially in the volatile world of startups, people need to hear, see, and touch success over and over and over again. It creates a wave of momentum that can overcome the setbacks you face along the way.
Get out from behind your laptop and help people enjoy the ride. Because when it’s over, your memories will be all you have to look back on.