We are beginning our third month as a corporation. The video room is now reliable and scalable. We’ve raised $2M of angel funding. The team is in place. While there is much to do, it is time to go “commercial.”
Last month, eight of us flew off-site to Barcelona to kick off this new chapter properly. On the last of four days of “drinking our own cava” and jelling together, we start to focus on growth. I deliver a little speech, one that I’ve given in 137 different forms over my career. “We expected revenue to be up here, by my eyebrows. It is trending down here, by my belly button. What’s up?” But this team, the run-like-a-circle Circles team, in a voice that in hindsight comes to me as a Greek chorus, surprises me with their answer, “Get your anxiety out of our safe space.”
I turn to Bre for validation, no stranger to sales targets. But, no. “They are right,” says our official company friend. “We have a product people are loving, that impacts their lives. It is too early for sales targets. Don’t worry about it.” And, so, we decided to scrap the revenue targets. We also unwound our traditional OKR process, Google’s method of setting roll-up goals. Instead, we agree to a cadence of setting experiments and reporting back on findings. Instead of goals, experiments, to learn, as quickly as we can, where the customer-market fit is. I left feeling like I’d jumped out into the abyss, and while I didn’t know if we were going to fly or fall, floating was a nice feeling.
There are a few parts to this story.
First, the team.
Everyone had read “Reinventing Organizations” to prime for the retreat. We’ve been working on our version of a “Teal” new wave organization. We spent time working on the idea of running our team like a Circle. Of all the Circles norms, applying equal air time to everyone in our meetings had the most dramatic impact (more on that in a separate post, I’m sure). In short, when no one hogged the meeting and we invited the thoughtful quiet people to share more, the quality of the conversation spiked. Bart, our 25-year old Dutch track star from SAP Barcelona, took a leap during one of his turns and asked for feedback. This brave request sparked a spontaneous “move to the couch” for two hours at a level of candor that I’ve never seen on a team. To keep the feedback flowing, we instituted a weekly three-person meeting (triads) that I’ve always wanted to try (1:1s are icky!). We’ll talk more about that later, because we’re liking it.
This epiphany was a bit about taking a step back. I tend to charge ahead and project a kind of “reality distortion field” that obscures the fact that we haven’t hit a low-friction fit between the benefits of a Circle and the buyer. So, fine, we have our funding now and 20 months at zero revenue to figure it out before scaling.
How exactly will we experiment vs. drive for targets? How do we learn fast? We’re proposing experiments on Monday, and reporting learnings on Friday. Team members keep challenging each other to argue with data. We’ve tried some experiments that have worked: running 1-hour sample circles of community managers, for example. We’ve stepped up our digital marketing experiments and are getting great data (and leads) already. We’ve tried some that haven’t worked so well: getting individual YPO’s who have forums to get their teams to sign up was a slow, mixed-bag. (Although many people from YPO have since reached out and are supportive.) We’ve designed many new tests, and are trying to be disciplined about not changing things until we’ve got convincing formal or informal data.
Within a few weeks of the offsite the experiments did yield some clarity on our go-to market strategies. We’ve de-prioritized a few initiatives that are taking too long. One of them is hand-sourcing Circles; we were doing that in the B-corp world. Another is schools - very promising, but for now, too slow.
We’re focusing on three paths to market: Consumer, Corporate and Community.
- Consumer: We’ve hired www.rebelhack.com to run structured experiments direct to entrepreneurs and corporate leaders. That quickly got some traction and results are coming in.
- Corporate: Leaders from P&G, Digital Ocean, Warby Parker, Microsoft, and others have enjoyed test circles and given us great feedback. Many have asked for proposals for corporate programs to help build leaders and culture internally.
- Community. I think “community manager” might be the fastest growing job of the century. Everyone is starting to view customers, alumni, fans as a community. Circles deepens the social bonds within a community. It leverages the value that members get from each other.
One of our biggest obstacles to running experiments fast, and to the product overall, is that it still takes too long to setup circles. Running small experiments allows us to pay attention to each person, but makes it difficult to apply and refine and test what we know about sorting and matching algorithms. We remain very focused on “onboarding” and continue to experiment with process and tools.
By way of status, I can’t not call out our tech team. We now have three full-time developers plus Franko, ramped and humming. We’re doing a sprint a week. The platform is reliable, so much so that we’re satisfied with our browser-based webrtc technology for now. They’ve migrated our back-end to Amazon, giving us easy scalability. We can take payments, and even I can create circles and users without a developer’s help. We can do hot upgrades, and have an environment to test new changes on ourselves. We’re now turning our attention to rolling out features.
I’m loving the design of this business. We’re running as a circle while we build the tools and experience we would want ourselves. I’m learning. It’s fun.