When Is It OK for a CEO to Take a Stand?

aaeaaqaaaaaaaau5aaaajdy0mwe4mtiylwe2ndatndjkyy04zdu0ltk2nmi0ztqwmde1nw

“A great business has to have a conscience. You have to know who you are and who you are not.” 

— Howard Schultz, Starbucks

History has shown that conventional wisdom in corporate communications has been to keep company statements high-level, formal, and uncontroversial. In the past decade, however, we have seen a secular shift from leaders of large companies like Apple, Costco and Starbucks, who are now more inclined to take a risk and speak up on issues that can be polarizing to different audiences.

In the past six months, I’ve had the opportunity to take a public stand for Wealthfrontthree times, and we’ve been fortunate enough to see those efforts rewarded in our growth. But speaking out as a CEO is never easy and it is never comfortable, so many are now asking the question:

When is it OK for a CEO to take a public stand?

Three Things to Think About

Leaders reflect strongly on their organizations, and CEOs cannot escape explicit and implicit comparisons with a company’s brand. So when a CEO makes the decision to take a stand, it has to be evaluated in the context of what’s best for the company. There is no real way for a CEO to divorce their position from that of their business, and a public position can trigger a reaction from all stakeholders.

Because of this, there are three core questions CEOs needs to ask themselves before taking a public stand:

  1. Do you have a mission-driven culture?
  2. Who is your customer base?
  3. Who are your suppliers, partners and investors?


Do You Have a Mission-Driven Culture?

“I think the currency of leadership is transparency. You’ve got to be truthful. I don’t think you should be vulnerable every day, but there are moments where you’ve got to share your soul and conscience with people and show them who you are, and not be afraid of it.” 
— Howard Schultz, Starbucks

One of the most difficult, and yet valuable aspects of building a successful company is building its culture. If your company is mission-driven and values transparency, you’ll find that taking a public stand is often rewarded with increased passion, engagement and pride from your employees. It can also help amplify the appeal of your organization to talent seeking purpose in their professional endeavors.

For example, the leadership at Tesla has made a conscious effort to ensure their mission to accelerate the transition to sustainable transportation drives (pun intended) the company culture, so when Elon Musk takes an aggressive stand, people, whether they agree or not, listen carefully. It is much harder for the leader of General Motors to take an aggressive public position.

There is no way to take a strong position on a controversial issue and not produce waves, both inside and outside the company. But mission-driven cultures are not only more tolerant of that debate, but also often deepen and strengthens because of it.

Who are your customers?

“Great companies that build an enduring brand have an emotional relationship with customers that has no barrier. And that emotional relationship is on the most important characteristic, which is trust.” 
— Howard Schultz, Starbucks

There is a saying in design that if you try to design for everyone, you end up designing for no one. Great consumer brands are like great designs – they resonate emotionally with a specific audience.

It is naive to think that taking a stand on ethical issues will result in universal support. That’s why it is incredibly important to not only know who your customers are, but also have a deep understanding of how they will react to a public position and specifically the one you are taking. While the specific position taken matters, too often leaders ignore the more subtle, but powerful issue, or whether or not their brand supports the idea of taking a strong, public position on the issue.

There is a reason why it’s easier for Costco to take a public position on some issues than Wal-Mart. It’s customers are primarily urban, mass affluent and well-educated. Their revenue per employee is much higher, and that allows them to pay their average worker more. As a result, it’s easier for Craig Jelinek to take strong public positions on issues like employee compensation and benefits that align with their brand and their customer base.

So if your position aligns with your brand and your customers, you’ll find a natural platform to amplify your message. But if it conflicts with what your customers expect from your company, it will not only detract from your message, it can also harm your company.

Who are your suppliers, partners and investors?

Companies have a wide variety of stakeholders, but one of the largest limiting factors in CEOs taking public stands on controversial issues are the often invisible dependencies they have on suppliers, partners and investors.

In the 1990s, Microsoft was infamous for exerting a strong level of silent influence over software and hardware partners who were dependent on their platform. Investors also can wield influence, sometimes directly through the Board of Directors, and sometimes less obviously through financing and other relationships. This is why it is incredibly important to be picky about your partners and chose those who align with your audience.

A CEO who takes a public stand at odds with critical suppliers, partners and investors can quickly find themselves and their companies in a difficult position. This is probably the most common reason that, historically, most CEOs have been forced to avoid controversial issues.

Leadership Beyond Metrics

By definition, opinionated positions will be polarizing. As a result, I’ve worked tirelessly at Wealthfront to build a company with purpose and mission, and build a brand supportive of taking on industry change directly. As a result, we’ve been incredibly vocal on issues that reflect the priorities and beliefs our our employees, our customers and our investors.

This past June, it was gratifying to see that our efforts around the fiduciary standard had an impact. In his four-page opening statement to Congress, Labor Secretary Thomas Perez cited Wealthfront as an example of a company serving the small investor and keeping their best interest front and center.

In July, it was heartening to see Acorns, another company in our space, respond positively to my call to fintech CEOs to drop monthly fees on small accounts. Their founder and CEO, Jeff Cruttenden decided to remove their monthly fee for students and investors under 24. Acorns is a mission-driven company, and it’s no surprise that they have quickly built the automated investment service with the most clients.

In general, taking a stand on an ethical issues is rarely good marketing, or positive for the metrics. Fortunately, July was a record month for Wealthfront. Over 3x as many people signed up for the service in July as did in January 2015, just six months ago. As it turns out, there is a huge population of young investors out there who are tired of business as usual, tired of the traditional financial services industry, and tired of rationalizations and empty promises.

Change does not come without risk, both personal and professional. Companies have to decide what they stand for, and leaders have to decide when it’s appropriate to take a stand.

Note: This post originally appeared on LinkedIn on August 13, 2015. It has been replicated here for archival purposes.

Make Things As Simple As Possible, But Not Simpler

It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.
Albert Einstein

It has become fashionable of late, during the second coming of Apple, for a large number of consultants, executives and professional speakers to frame simplicity as an absolute good.  Simplicity, however, can have a number of negative implications for both design and usability, so I thought it prudent to highlight a few of its limitations as a guiding principal.

Ockham’s Razor vs. Einstein’s Razor

Before jumping to technology, it’s worth noting that this debate has origins in science as well.  Ockham’s Razor famously dictates that, given two hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.  While not absolute, the principle is important because it shifts the burden of proof to the more complicated explanation.

Einstein (as quoted at the top of this post), pointed out the obvious: simplicity has its limits.  As a result, Einstein’s Razor is commonly stated as:

Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Too many entrepreneurs and executives preaching the simple religion forget this.

Example: iPhone Home Button

When the iPhone launched in 2007, it was an extremely aggressive vision of the future of the smartphone.  Bucking the trend from 12-key numberpads to full QWERTY keypads, the iPhone debuted with just one button.

What could be simpler than one button?

iphone

Well, technically zero buttons would have been simpler.

iphone-0

Why the single button?  Apple decided this was as simple as they could get it without hiding a key function they felt people needed to be able to access with “tactile” accessibility.  Apple had decided to remove quite a bit of tactile access from the phone.  Feature phone users lost the ability to know that the “*” key was in the bottom left, or “3” was on the bottom right.  Treo & Blackberry users lost the ability, without looking, to know where keys like space and return were.

The answer? Apple decided that the importance of having a tactile method of accessing “home” was more important than enforcing that next level of simplification.  Simple as possible, but not simpler.

Wait? They Added a Switch?

Industrial design aficionados might have already spotted an issue with my previous example.  Apple may have reduced the keypad to a single button, but they actually were applauded at launch for adding a new physical control.

Apple added a hardware switch to mute the phone.

iphone2G

Along with hardware buttons for home, power, and volume up/down, the iPhone added a physical switch for turning mute on or off.

With most other dominant systems at the time (Nokia, Blackberry), turning off your ringer meant navigating from:

Home -> Settings -> Ringer (or Volume) -> Off

Now you could argue that Apple “simplified” the ability to turn off the ringer, but from an interface standpoint they added a control to their highest level of information architecture (the device) for this one function.  This is roughly the equivalent of a website adding this function to its primary header.

In the push to reduce the number of controls, simplicity gave way to an equally important design consideration: minimizing the number of steps to perform a high value action (with the added benefit of tactile access, crucial for a function you might want to perform sight-unseen, in your pocket)

Simplicity Can Lead to Overloading, Which Is Complex

Anyone who has worked on a design project around information architecture is familiar with the tradeoff.  Reducing the number of controls or number of entry points definitely simplifies the interface.  Fewer choices, less cognitive load on the user.

Unfortunately, if you have five branches at each level of a command structure, you can make 25 commands just two steps away.  If you have three branches at each level, you need three steps to reach that same number of commands.

No one wants to replicate the Microsoft Office hierarchy of thousands of commands littered across dozens of entry points.  But if your software honestly has four key functions, “simplifying” to one entry point can make the users job harder, not easier.

Wealthfront: Building Trust with Transparency

At Wealthfront, one of top priorities is building trust with guest visitors to our site.  Interestingly, we’ve discovered that over-simplification has another negative attribute: when people don’t readily see the answer to a key question, there is potential for them to assume you’re hiding that information.

As a result, our new user experience is a careful balance of simplicity, but balanced with providing crucial information to our visitors, even at the risk of some complexity.

We show our clients up front our investment choices, down to quick answers for why we’ve chosen each particular ETF.  We provide examples of both taxable and tax-deferred account allocations up front, even before the visitor has signed up for the service.

Screen Shot 2013-09-24 at 4.08.39 PM

To be sure, like all software interfaces, there are significant improvements that we can make to our new user experience.  But it’s worth sharing that our experience has been that blind adherence to simplicity can actually hurt the level of confidence and trust people have with your service.  This interface has seen the company to record growth in 2013, up over 250% for the year (as of September).

More broadly, it’s worth considering that when you bury functions and features, you may trigger emotions in your user that aren’t positive:

  • Frustration. They don’t know where to look for something they want.
  • AnxietyThey worry that the thing they need is no longer supported.
  • Distrust. They assume that you are hiding something for a reason.

So remember, when someone preaches the religion of simplicity, think carefully about Einstein’s Razor.

Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.

My Letter to Starbucks Mobile

Dear Starbucks,

We’ve been close friends for years. I see you almost every day, some days more than once. I’ve visited you in over half a dozen countries, and there are probably half a dozen locations in Silicon Valley where you know me and my drink by name. I’ll be there for you when you need me, and I know you’ll be there for me when I need you.

My girlfriend at Starbucks, Cambride, MA in 2000

My girlfriend at the Starbucks in Harvard Square (2000)

That’s why we need to talk. About your mobile app and the app marketing it uses.

Starbucks Mobile is a Homescreen App

I use your mobile app every day. I love that it works in different countries. I love that it auto-reloads, and it (finally) gives me free drinks without the annoyance of postcards in the mail. And I will tell you, the Starbucks store-finder is a life saver in more ways than one.

Home Screen

It’s on the homescreen of my iPhone 5. Not in a folder. 2nd row. It’s #8 with a bullet.

I want you to know me

There are barristas at five different Starbucks who know the drink I normally order. The one in Los Altos actually knows the drink I usually order for my wife too. And yet, after over 1000 orders, you still don’t know my favorite drink?

The Starbucks app should:

  • Know what drinks I’ve ordered, and rank them by the number of times I’ve ordered them.
  • Know what I’ve tried, and what I should try.

Your best barristas try to know their customers & their drinks. Why not your app?

I want to know where I’ve been, and where I’m going

I’ve been to dozens of different Starbucks. If I drop the kids off a school, I might grab my morning drink at the Starbucks on Alma. If I’m late, I might go straight to the office, and walk to the one on University. If I’m heading to San Francisco, I’ll stop at the one in Los Altos before jumping on 280.

The Starbucks app should:

  • Have a hot list of Starbucks I’ve visited, ranked either by recency or by frequency
  • For each visited Starbucks, show me when I visited them last. Show me what I ordered.
  • If I break pattern, it’s even OK to suggest a drink to me.

You could know all of this, of course. But you don’t care.

I want you to care about my opinion

On most days, your barristas do a great job. But did you know that the line at the Los Altos location is really long during the week? Or that the Starbucks on Alma is the fastest?

Did you know that sometimes, your barristas see me, place my order, and have it made before I get to the head of the line?

I want to tell you these things. I want to let you know when your barristas are amazing. I want to tip them. I want them to get promotions. I want them to know they are appreciated.

The Starbucks app should:

  • Let me tell you when the line is long (like Waze)
  • Let me tell you when I waited a long time for my drink
  • Let me tell you when my drink was made poorly
  • Let me give kudos when my drink came quickly
  • Let me tip when my drink came quickly
  • Rank drinks and user reviews (like Movie Box)

Your mobile app eliminates tipping, and devalues my relationship with the barristas. It should be the other way around.

I want you to save me time

I love the Starbucks experience. But the truth is, I go to Starbucks for four different reasons, in order of frequency:

  1. I go for my daily coffee on the way to work.
  2. I walk to Starbucks for a meeting.
  3. I go to Starbucks as part of a social destination.
  4. I go to Starbucks to relax and read.

The problem is, you seem to only care about the last 3. For the first use case, I just don’t have time to kill. I’m alone, and I need to get in and out as quickly as possible. I love you, but sometimes I just don’t have time for the experience. I promise, we’ll catch up later.

The Starbucks app should:

  • Know my favorite orders
  • Let me order & pay for them before I get in the car
  • Have them ready for pickup when I arrive
  • Let me know when the order is ready

If you are worried about the casual user not getting the “Starbucks experience”, I understand. Maybe this should be a perk for being a frequent customer?

Last Thoughts

Since we’re being open and honest, I might as well tell you what no one else is. Just stop with the nonsense with the app of the day, song of the day. You are giving me a red badge on my app EVERY DAY for something that no one wants. It’s beneath you. You are better than that.

Notify me because you have a new drink, and since I’m such a loyal customer, I get one free.

Notify me because 95% of the time I’ve visited Starbucks on Wednesday by 10am, and check to see if I want one today on the house?

I don’t want to hear about wireless charging mats. Seriously.

I love you Starbucks. Tell me you love me back.

How to Recover the Left Side Navigation in iTunes 11

I can’t believe I’m writing this blog post, but I am.

Last night, I tweeted out my joy at finding out that Apple did, in fact, provide a menu item to re-enable the side navigation in iTunes 11.  Now, while I’m not a huge fan of the complexity and modality of the older iTunes interface, there is no doubt that after using iTunes 11 for a week, you wish for the halcyon days of the left navigation bar.

Surprisingly, enough people tweeted and commented in gratitude that I realized I should probably summarize in a blog post.

iTunes 11 – Default

This is the iTunes 11 default interface. (Try to ignore my taste in movies for a second)

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 9.09.42 AM

iTunes 11 – Sidebar

This is iTunes 11 with the sidebar enabled.

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 9.14.16 AM

All of a sudden, the shockingly horrid modality of the iTunes 11 default interface is resolved.  You can easily select which sub-category of content in your iTunes library you want to browse, and viewing connected devices and playlists has once again become trivial.  It turns out, you still end up with the horrid choices for navigation views within a “domain”, but at least we’re 80% of the way back to the (limited) usability of the previous iTunes interface.

Wait, How Did You Do It?

It’s hidden under the View menu, “Show Sidebar”

Screen Shot 2012-12-18 at 9.13.27 AM

Simple does not mean Easy to Use

Just as cuffs, collars and neckties are subject to the whims of fashion, so also do memes in design tend to come and go in software.  I think iTunes 11 represents a bit of a teachable moment on a couple concepts that have been overplayed recently, and what happens when you take them too far.

  1. Consistency does not always lead to ease of use.  Having a more consistent interface between the iPhone, iPad, AppleTV and Mac OS renditions of iTunes may seem like an “obvious” goal, but the fact is all of these devices vary in terms of input mechanisms and use cases.  The truth is, many users sit down at a desktop for different tasks than they sit down at a TV for, and the interface of the desktop is optimized for those tasks with large, high resolution screens and a keyboard.My best guess here is that Apple optimized the interface for laptops, not desktops, and for consumption, not curation. However, Apple would have been well served to provide a “first launch” experience with packaged pre-sets of these minor configurable options, to let users who are upgrading easily identify their primary mode of operation.I would love Apple to take a more proactive stance on how to build applications and services that provide elements of commonality across the multitude of devices that users increasing use to author, curate and consume content with, without blind adherence to making everything look & behave “the same”.
  2. Simple does not mean easy to use.   On the heals of Steve Jobs mania, it has become ultra-fashionable to talk about simplicity as the end-all, be-all of product design.  The fact is, there is often a trade off between reducing the number of controls that an application (or device) has, and introducing increased modality for commonly used functions.  The one button mouse was, in fact, simpler than the two button mouse.  However, it came at the expense of pushing a significant amount of functionality into a combination of selection and menu modality.Look at the poor “single button” on the iPhone.  Simple, but now stacked with modality based on the number and timing of presses.Designers would do well to consider the balance of simplicity, accessibility and the difficult decision of which functions are so key to an application that they require “zero click” comprehension of availability.  For iTunes 11, the hidden modality of managing the devices synched to your iTunes library is unforgivable. (The likely sin here is being too forward looking. As we move to iCloud for everything, the need for devices to be tethered to iTunes goes away.  But we’re not there yet with video.)

I hope this helps at least one person out there have a better experience with iTunes 11.

User Acquisition: Cycle Time Matters

This is an extension to my original three post series on user acquisition.

Over the past few months I been fortunate enough to give over a dozen talks at various events and companies about user acquisition, virality and mobile distribution.  One of the best parts of the experience is that, without fail, every talk yields a new set of questions and insights that help me learn and refine my own thinking on distribution & growth.

One of the most common questions I get is around the difference between my definition of “viral factor” and the semi-standard definition of “K Factor” that has been floating around for a few years.

What’s a K Factor?

Wikipedia offers a fairly concise definition of a K factor, a term borrowed from epidemiology.

i = number of invites sent by each customer
c = percent conversion of each invite
k = i * c

As the wikipedia article explains:

This usage is borrowed from the medical field of epidemiology in which a virus having a k-factor of 1 is in a “steady” state of neither growth nor decline, while a k-factor greater than 1 indicates exponential growth and a k-factor less than 1 indicates exponential decline. The k-factor in this context is itself a product of the rates of distribution and infection for an app (or virus). “Distribution” measures how many people, on average, a host will make contact with while still infectious and “infection” measures how likely a person is, on average, to also become infected after contact with a viral host.

What’s a Z Factor?

This blog post from Mixpanel in 2009 does a great job of walking through the standard definition of Z factor.  Hat tip to Dave McClure for his slide, which is included in the post.

Based on this framework, the Z factor is literally the percentage of users who accept a viral invitation that they receive.

The Problem with K & Z Factors

I meet with a startup that told me proudly that they had measured the viral factor of their new service, and that it was over 2.  My first question, of course, was:

“over what time period?”

In my blog post on viral factor basics, I define a viral factor as follows:

“Given that I get a new customer today, how many new customers will they bring in over the next N days?”

The key to understanding viral math is to remember a basic truth about rabbits.  Rabbits don’t have a lot of rabbits  because they have big litters.  Rabbits have a lot of rabbits because they breed frequently.

You’ll notice that, unlike the other popularized definitions, I focus on a new variable, “N”, the number of days it takes for your viral cycle to complete.  I do this for a simple reason: cycle time matters.   The path to success is typically the combination of a high branching factor combined with a fast cycle time. If you don’t think deeply about the channels you are using for viral distribution, you risk prioritizing the wrong features.

How Do You Pick the Right Cycle Time?

Once a growth team digs into the numbers, they quickly realize that there is no one “cycle time”.  So what number do you pick for analysis?

There is no right answer, but in general, you tend to find in the data that there is a breakpoint in the data where a vast majority of all viral events that are going to complete are going to complete.  For example, maybe with a viral email you’d see most responses happen in 24 hours, with 90% of total responses happening within 3 days.  If that’s the case, picking 3 days might be the right cycle time for your feature.  Once you pick a cycle time, the conversion rate gets built into your projections.

Cycle Time Matters

If you are already focused on the new user experience, distribution and virality, well then kudos to you and team.  Too many consumer products to this day spend too little time focused on these problems.

But if you want to see clear, demonstrable progress from your growth team, make sure you include cycle time in your thinking about what viral features will be most effective for your product.

Now go out and make a lot of rabbits.

The Game Has Changed. Design for Passion.

One of the most exciting developments in software has been a resurgence in the focus and priority on design.  With the growing dominance of social platforms and mobile applications, more and more people are growing comfortable productively discussing and utilizing insights about human emotion in their work.

Google: The Era of Utility

The progress of the last five to seven years is really a significant breakout from the previous generations of software design.

For decades, software engineers and designers focused on utility:  value, productivity, speed, features or cost.

If it could be quantified, we optimized it.  But at a higher level, with few exceptions, we framed every problem around utility.  Even the field of human-computer interaction was obsesses with “ease of use.”  Very linear, with clear ranking.  How many clicks? How long does a task take?  What is the error rate?

In some ways, Google (circa 2005) represented the peak of this definition of progress.  Massive data.  Massive scalability. Incredibly utility.  Every decision defined by quantifying and maximizing utility by various names.

But let’s face it, only computer scientists can really get passionate about the world’s biggest database.

Social: The Era of Emotion

Like any ecosystem, consumer technology is massively competitive.  Can you be faster, cheaper, bigger or more useful than Google?  It turns out, there is a more interesting question.

Social networks helped bring the language of emotion into software.  A focus on people starts with highly quantifiable attributes, but moves quickly into action and engagement.

What do people like? What do they hate? What do they love? What do they want?

In parallel, there have been several developments that reflect similar insights on the web, in behavioral finance, and the explosion in interest in game mechanics.

Human beings are not rational, but (to borrow from Dan Ariely) they are predictably irrational.  And now, thanks to scaling social platforms to over a billion people, we have literally petabytes of data to help us understand their behavior.

Passion Matters

Once you accept that you are designing and selling a product for humans, it seems obvious that passion matters.

We don’t evaluate the food we eat based on metrics (although we’d likely be healthier if we did).  Do I want it? Do I love it? How does it make me feel?

The PayPal mafia often joke that great social software triggers at least one of the seven deadly sins. (For the record, LinkedIn has two: vanity & greed).  Human beings haven’t changed that much in the past few thousand years, and the truth is the seven deadly sins are just a proxy for a deeper insight.  We are still driven by strong emotions & desires.

In my reflection on Steve Jobs, he talks about Apple making products that people “lust” for.  Not the “the best products”, “the cheapest products”, “the most useful products” or “the easiest to use products.”

Metrics oriented product managers, engineers & designers quickly discover that designs that trigger passion outperform those based on utility by wide margins.

The Game Has Changed

One of the reasons a number of earlier web giants are struggling to compete now is that the game has changed.  Utility, as measured by functionality, time spent, ease-of-use are important, but they are no longer sufficient to be competitive. Today, you also have to build products that trigger real emotion.  Products that people will like, will want, will love.

Mobile has greatly accelerated this change.  Smartphones are personal devices.  We touch them, they buzz for us. We keep them within three feet of us at all times.

Too often in product & design we focus on utility instead of passion.  To break out today, you need to move your efforts to the next level.  The questions you need to ask yourself are softer:

  • How do I feel when I use this?
  • Do I want that feeling again?
  • What powerful emotions surround this product?

Go beyond utility.  Design for passion.