The Evolutionary Convergence of Ideas

The other morning I read a blog post from one of my business role models, Seth Godin.

He wrote:

Instead of outthinking the competition it’s worth trying to outlove them.”

When I read his post, I couldn’t believe it. “How cool is this?”, I thought. The idea of out-CARING the competition  is the business philosophy that has driven my  decisions for several years. I’ve written about out-caring the competition in the past on my blog, and now, uber-smart business guy, Seth Godin is writing about the same idea. Neat-o.

Seth and I are not unique though.  When I googled the phrase “out-care the competition” at least a dozen other people have written about this same concept.  Across the Interwebz, people had converged on this idea independently of each other.  This phenomenon happens all the time in the startup world (two companies in different parts of the world will start the same business at the same time without knowledge that the other company exists).

I recently learned that a similar phenomenon happens in nature as well.  It’s what is known in biological terms as evolutionary convergence.  (the acquisition of the same biological trait in different lineages). The wing is the classic example of evolutionary convergence.   In the survival of the fittest, flight is a pretty  useful characteristic to have. Because of this, birds, bats and insects have all evolved wings and the capacity to fly even though none of these animals are even closely related.  Birds, bats and insects have all converged on this useful trait.

Convergent evolution of the fin.

 

The lesson as applied to startups is that if you have an idea, don’t sit on it.  TAKE ACTION.   No matter how novel you think your idea is, chances are about one hundred other people are thinking of the same idea.  The ones who win are the ones who act on it.

 

 

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Is Blogging Dead?

There has been a lot of scuttlebutt in the blogosphere * over the past year that BLOGGING IS DEAD.   In fact if you Google the words “blogging is dead” you will find over 60 pages filled (ironically) with blog posts using the exact same, hyperbolic, attention grabbing, headline I chose  for this post.

*Disclosure: I don’t actually know what (or where?) the blogosphere really is.  I just thought it would be fun to use the words scuttlebutt and blogosphere in the same sentence.

So, is this true?  Is blogging really dead?  Cause if so, well that kind of sucks, man!  I mean I just started this damn blog a year ago and now I find out that the whole industry is dead.  Double Turds!!!!

Sadly, for me and my stupid blog filled with words, the data seems to back up this apocalyptic prognostication.  Today’s blogger is no longer writing long form blogs in WordPress (or god forbid Typepad or Blogspot).  Instead, they’re using blog-lite websites like Tumblr to share interesting photos with snarky captions.   In fact, Mashable recently posted that by the end of 2012 the word Tumblr will actually overtake the word blog in Google searches.

The reason Tumblr is spanking long-form blogs is pretty simple.   Tumblr = pictures.  Blogs = words.  Pictures > Words.  :. Tumblr Wins.  End of Story.

 

 

 

I just have to look at my own blog analytics on Startups and Burritos to see that this is true.  For example.  The longest post I’ve written (Why Weird is Good) is 1241 words. It got a whopping 102 views. The shortest post I’ve written (Best Job Interview Follow Up Ever) is 56 words but includes a funny video. It had over 3261 views.  The post with the video did 32 times better.  Was the content really 32 times better? Perhaps it was, but more likely the reason the video post did so much better is because people simply prefer to consume information through video rather than long, boring prose.

Okay, so if blogs are in fact dying, what does this actually mean?

Truthfully, the growing distaste for written blogs is merely a symptom of a bigger trend.  As we become ever more addicted to the constant fire hose of information that is social media, most people (myself included) sadly don’t have the attention span anymore to read anything that requires more than 20 seconds of brain power.  In other words, the death of blogs is probably just the canary in the coal mine.

Instead of words, we want pictures. Lots of them.

MORE PICTURES.  LESS WORDS.  This is the trend  –> Instagram: $1 Billion exit //  Encyclopedia Britannica: out of print

Take for example, these two e-commerce sites, Sears and FAB.com. Which one do you think will still be around in 20 years.  I’ll give you a hint.  It doesn’t rhyme with beers.

 

So here’s my takeaway to my fellow Startuppers:

Your content needs to be visual or it will perish!!!

This trend isn’t just with blogs. It’s your website, your mobile app, your emails, your monthly newsletters, your everything.  Visual is the way of the web in 2012 and I don’t think we’ll see a reversal anytime soon. The trend towards a more visual web has been upon us for years, and the growth of mobile devices, whose small screen sizes mandate we use even fewer words, will only accelerate the visual web’s dominance. if you’re is not moving towards a more visual content delivery system, you’re dead in the water.

 

 

* Holy mackerel! This non-visual blog post is whopping 564words.  And yes, in case you were wondering, it would probably generate a lot more more traffic if I simply replaced 560 of these words with an awesome animated GIF of keyboard cat.

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Idea Assassins

“Do few things but do them well. What doesn’t work, kill quickly.”

This is not a quote from Sun Tzu. It’s from Simon Rothman, who is probably just as smart. Simon was one of the very early guys at eBay and was responsible for starting eBay Motors, which ended up becoming a $14 billion-a-year global business and generating about one-third of all of eBay’s merchandise sales. He later became a board member at Tesla and is now executive-in-residence at Greylock Venture Partners.

I had a chance to meet with Simon last week. The advice he gave me about marketing strategy was just too good not to pass along, so I thought I’d share it. Here are Simon’s four rules on marketing:

1. Place only a handful of bets.

Startups rarely fail for a lack of ideas; they fail for a lack of focus. As a founder, your job isn’t to come up with a million marketing ideas but instead to prioritize the top three. So many startups fail because they try to boil the ocean. Instead of trying to tackle a million different marketing ideas, keep in mind that 80 percent of your revenue will likely come from your top 20 percent of customers. Try to figure out the common characteristics behind these top-producing customers, and then focus on the channels that are bringing them in.

2. Put enough time, money, and resources into each strategy to give it chance to succeed.

If you place too many bets, you spread yourself too thin and set yourself up for failure. Some of your bets will fail, not because they were bad ideas but because they were undercapitalized and never even had a real opportunity to succeed. The key is to put more money into fewer bets.

Take display ads, for example. You might be losing money for three months on your display ads, but then on the fourth month, you make a small tweak in the ad copy and your ads turn into a huge moneymaker. But if you only had enough budget to run the ads for one month, you never would have figured this out and just would have thrown money down the drain. Marketing is all about iterating and making as many tweaks as possible in the time frame that you have allotted. The more money you budget for a particular channel, the longer you can stay in the game and the better your odds are of figuring out a formula that works.

3. Test your hypotheses in any way you can — including your instincts.

There’s an old saying in marketing, “What you can’t measure, you can’t improve.” This saying is absolutely true — except when it’s not. Try to test as much as you can, but realize that you can’t measure everything. One of the things that worked well to drive growth early at eBay was PR, one of the most notoriously difficult tactics to measure. Simon said that even though they couldn’t really measure it, they just knew it was working. In other words, sometimes, as a founder, you have stop being a nerd, put down your copy of The Lean Startup, and just trust your instincts.

4. Add fuel to the fire, or kill it quickly and move on to the next idea.

Once you’ve tested a strategy, you have two options. If the strategy is knocking it out of the park, pour more time, money, and energy into it in order to make it scale. If the strategy is not working, kill it immediately. As Simon said, ”If you have to ask yourself repeatedly whether a strategy is working, then the strategy is NOT working.” The harder question arises when a strategy is working pretty well but is not really knocking it out of the park. The tendency in most startups is to keep it going, because they have already put significant time and money into it and want to see it all the way through. This is the wrong choice!

Instead, recognize that the resources you put in are sunk costs, and kill the idea. When you only have enough money and bandwidth to execute on two or three ideas really well, the opportunity cost of putting resources into anything but the best performing strategies is too high.

Marketing is a crap shoot; no one really knows which ideas will work until they let them loose in the wild. The more ideas you test, the greater your chances are of finding the one that works. But don’t test them all at the same time. That won’t work. If you do that, they’ll all fail because you’ll be stretched too thin to execute any of them well. The key is to prioritize.

Lastly, be an idea assassin. Don’t get emotionally attached to your ideas. Be ruthless about killing off the medium performing ideas and just keep the absolute best. Because if you don’t make it a practice to kill off your ideas, your ideas will end up killing off your startup.

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Work Hard. Get Lucky. Ride the Wave. And then Smile for the Camera.

Startup formula for becoming an overnight success: Work hard. Get Lucky. Ride the Wave and then make sure to smile for the camera.

I got an email the other day from a CEO at a company I advise who had applied for a startup accelerator called Impact Engine.   The news in the email was not good.  She had reached the last round of judging but didn’t make the final cut.

My advice to her was: don’t worry about.  As a startup founder, there is so much that is outside of your control, that all you can really do is continue to work your tail off and hope to catch a few lucky breaks along the way.

Here’s an example.

In 2009, I fell in love with a venture capital firm called First Round Capital.   A tweet from one of their associates had led me to a blog post, which led me to their website, which led me to their holiday card video. If there is such thing as love at first sight with a venture capital firm, this was it.  “OMG,” I thought to myself after I watched the video,  “These guys are as weird as I am.”

So I decided to email them.  It was the first venture capital firm I had ever reached out to and I had absolutely zero clue as to what I was doing.  I wrote a stupidly long and wordy email telling them about GiveForward and asked for the opportunity to pitch.  Within a day I got a very thoughtful response from an associate.  He said no and that we’d probably be better off as a non-profit.  A year later after graduating from Excelerate Labs, I reached out again to FRC to see if we could pitch and again the same associate said no.  This time, he wrote that he appreciated the progress we had made but didn’t see this as a “venture type deal”.  Another year passed, and then in April of 2012 I reached out to FRC again.  This time, we got a better response.  They agreed to hear our pitch and a few weeks later decided to co-lead our round along with Founder Collective.  (hooray!)

Now, the funny thing is, last night I got an email out of the blue from the First Round Capital  VC who I had written to all the way back in 2009 and 2010.  I hadn’t spoken to him in two years and he has since moved on from First Round Capital to start his own VC firm.   His email consisted of only one word.  It said:

Congrats :)

Moral of the story.  In life and in startups, if you believe in what you’re doing, just keep doing it and with a little luck, eventually someone is going to notice.

I think this is particularly true with raising capital.  As a first time entrepreneur, when you go to pitch investors you’re going to hear NO a lot more than you hear YES.  When we did our angel round with GiveForward in 2011 we ended up oversubscribed, meaning that more people wanted to invest than we had room for in the round.  Even so, the NO’s outnumbered the YES’s nearly two to one. (we pitched 45 investors.  16 said yes.  29 said no. 13 participated in the round).  With our most recent round of funding that closed this past July, we ended up oversubscribed again.  But we still heard NO eight times before we heard our first YES.  NO’s are the default answer in the VC world. Rejection is part of the game. It doesn’t mean your idea is bad. It might just mean that your idea doesn’t fit within a firm’s investment thesis or the timing is bad for the firm or that your concept is “too early” and the market isn’t ready for it yet.

When I look back at GiveForward in 2009, we definitely fit into this last category of being  “too early”.  And to be honest, if I was First Round Capital, I probably wouldn’t have invested in us back then either.

Here’s what the landscape looked like in 2009:

  • GiveForward, Kickstarter, and maybe three or four other crowdfunding sites exist; none of which have really taken off yet.
  • Facebook, the main platform people use to share their crowdfunding pages, has a ‘paltry’ 200 million users
  • The term crowdfunding is largely unknown.  Most people in the industry were still referring to the space as “peer to peer fundraising”

Here’s what it looks like in 2012

  • There are over 300 crowdfunding sites worldwide; Kickstarter has become a household name.
  • Facebook now has about a 1 billion users worldwide sharing crowdfunding pages millions of times a day.
  • The term crowdfunding has not only been popularized by the general public but President Obama has even passed a crowdfunding law called the JOBS Act with near unanimous support from Congress.

What a difference three years makes, right?  GiveForward isn’t a fundamentally different company than we were in 2009, but in 2012 the public is now comfortable enough with the concept of crowdfunding to make market adoption a real possibility.  And truth be told, we got really lucky with our market timing.   Although we were a little early when we launched in 2008, we bootstrapped and stayed in the game long enough to be in the right place at the right time.  In 2010 Kickstarter got funding from Union Square Ventures, putting crowdfunding on the VC map (thank you Fred Wilson).  By 2011, Kickstarter had blown up and crowdfunding had officially arrived.  And now in 2012…well, now everyone who got into crowdfunding early is just riding the wave and hopefully looking good when we smile for the camera.

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VC Funding and Cancer Free

There’s a popular critique in many startup blogs downplaying the importance of raising capital. The argument is that raising capital is easy and the real work happens after a company raises money.   Rather than celebrating companies that are generating revenue and turning a profit, startup culture chooses to celebrate companies that are raising lots of venture capital and by doing so we end up lionizing the wrong startups.

Having bootstrapped two startups  and seen one of them fail in part because of an inability to raise capital, I can say straight up, I think this popular critique is a bunch of poop.

Raising capital IS important and it should be celebrated.

As a startup founder, your most important responsibility is getting key stakeholders to believe in your vision of the future. This means everything from finding a co-founder and early employees to convincing that first customer to believe in your product. Getting the right investors to buy into your vision is a huge part of your role, and it’s an important milestone in the lifespan of a startup.

For Most Startups, Capital is a Necessary but not Sufficient Factor for Success.

Of course raising capital doesn’t mean that your startup is going to be successful.  And of course not every startup is the type of startups that should be taking on VC funding.  But for the startups that actually do need the money in order to achieve scale (i.e. startups that hope to become $500 million+ companies) taking on an appropriate amount of funding from the right investors means your startup at least has a chance for success.

Here’s all the proof I need that money still matters…

Last week GiveForward announced we had just completed a $2mm raise with some great investors. On the same day we announced our raise, we got an email at the office from one of our users on GiveForward who was fundraising for a 17-year-old named Justin battling stage 4 testicular cancer.   The email subject line read: CANCER FREE!!!!!!!!!!

 

 

 

As a company, I can tell you there was 10 times more excitement around the office when we got this email than when we saw our names in TechCrunch. These are the kind of emails that we live for!  But, had we not raised capital last year, we would never have received this email.  We never would have been able to grow a team and advertise our services, and Justin’s family likely never would have found us.

So, at the end of the day is raising capital something worth celebrating?  Yes!!!!  If raising capital means we are now going to be able to reach thousands more families just like Justin’s, then I believe it is absolutely something worthy of celebration.

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Leap and the Net Will Appear – Lessons I’ve learned from Desiree Vargas-Wrigley

Last night my co-founder, Desiree Vargas-Wrigley, won the Tech Woman of the Year Award at Builtin Chicago’s Moxie Awards.  I couldn’t be more proud of her and how far she has come.

On the other side of the country,  I was speaking to a group of  professionals at the Startup Leadership Program in Silicon Valley who were considering leaving the corporate world and starting their own companies.  One of the questions I was asked during the Q and A session was, ‘what is the hardest part about running a startup?’

Upon getting this question, I immediately thought of Desiree and the magnet that she keeps on her fridge that says:

Leap and the net will appear.

For Desiree, this maxim couldn’t be more true.  In late 2007, a little voice went off in Desiree’s head that said ‘YOU NEED TO START GIVEFORWARD’.  And so unlike the rest of us who typically sit on our ideas without doing anything, she decided to act.   Without an ounce of prior business experience, she wrote a business plan, which she used to secure a $10,000 crowdfunded loan from Prosper.com and another $5000 from her grandpa. She then contracted with a web development shop to begin building the first version of GiveForward.  She did all this without having a co-founder, a real attorney, or even enough funding secured to pay for the entire website (the total cost for the website was around $25,000 paid in three installments over 4 months).  She just figured as crazy as the idea seemed to others, she had to get started THAT DAY and the rest would fall into place.

As fate would have it, things have certainly fallen into place. A little less than four years after launching GiveForward, we won the award for best consumer startup in Chicago last night, and we’ve now helped people raise over $16 million for things like cancer treatments and organ transplants.  Certainly we’ve put in hard work and caught a lot of lucky breaks along the way, but none of  this would have happened if Desiree hadn’t had the courage to take the leap.

Flash back to the professionals in Silicon Valley, who asked ‘what’s the hardest part of running a startup?’   Well, my  response to this question was easy:  

The hardest part about running a startup, isn’t running the startup.  It’s having the courage to take the leap in the first place.

Big hugs to my partner Desiree for taking the leap four years ago, and a special shout out to my friend Mary-Ashby Brown from law school who just took the leap and officially launched her wonderful business Salve Sister today!

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@FakeGrimlock: Best Startup Advisor EVER?

You ever wonder what it would be like to have @FakeGrimlock as an advisor to your startup?  This past April we were lucky enough to convince Mr. Dino-man himself  to join GiveForward in an advisory role.   Since that time we keep hearing two questions over and over:  Are you really getting advice from a robot dinosaur?  and  Does he always talk in robot voice?  The answer is Yes and Yes. Here’s his recent UI critique of our homepage:

Look for some of these robotically awesome changes to appear in our next product release.
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An Open Letter To Artists

Dear Artists:

If you’ve ever painted a painting, written a blog, bootstrapped a small business, mentored a student, volunteered for a non-profit, sung at an open-mic night, or shared your art in some way, shape or form, you’ve probably asked yourself  “does what I’m doing actually matter?”

My answer is an emphatic YES!

I’ve been writing this blog for about nine months now. I’ve gotten a total of 29,656 of visits.  By no means are these gaudy numbers.  I’m certainly never going to become the next Seth Godin or  make a penny from this blog.  So why keep doing it?   Well, last month I got a couple of emails from readers that totally made my day.  And for me, that’s enough.

This one came from my friend Brittany Graunke of Zealous Good.

Just wanted you to know, reading your blog post on mantras is homework for the ZG team! Read it last week on Startups and Burritos and it really made me think. Anyways – just a quick thanks for being awesome and having so many very helpful blog posts (in addition to being a cool, awesome person).

Have a great memorial day weekend!
Britt
And this one from my law school friend who has decided to quit the legal world and start her own business.
Just want to say thank you Ethan for being such an awesome source of inspiration and such a good person to boot – your example is keeping me chugging forward with hope in getting my business off the ground!  I really appreciate it.  Thanks for being so wonderful!

When you open yourself up and share your art with others, it may not always be readily apparent to you,  but what you’re doing matters to someone. Keep doing it.

On the flip side, if you’re somebody who has enjoyed, appreciated, or benefitted from a piece of art that someone has shared with you, let them know how you feel.  Chances are they had no idea their work had any impact, and your note will make their day.

For further reading on this topic, check out Startup Metrics: Why Early Stage Startups Should Measure Hugs Instead of Revenue

The Scary Reality of Chocolate

I don’t normally blog about political issues as I have a strong dislike for the uninformed, misinformed or half-informed, holier-than-thou, preachy types, and never want to be one myself.

And while I know I risk becoming one of these people by writing this blog post, I think it’s worth the risk.  I learned something last night that I found so absolutely abhorrent I couldn’t get it out of my head.  It rattled me and I felt the need to share it with others.

Last night, my girlfriendBrittany and I went to a talk about food justice by Raj Patel, author of the book Stuffed and Starved, The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.  He spoke for over an hour on various subjects like food deserts, climate change, and locally sourced foods, but what struck me the most was something he said in passing about fair trade coffee.   Although he didn’t go into any detail about the labor practices of  the coffee  industry, he referred to non-fair trade coffee as ‘blood beans’.  It seemed a bit hyperbolic to me but the phrase stuck in my head.

In an odd coincidence, yesterday I also happened to buy Brittany her favorite treat – dark chocolate. She has a big presenation at work today and I figured she could use a stress relief in the form of delicious chocolatey goodness.  Now mind you, Brittany is the ultimate dogooder and doesn’t eat chocolate unless it is clearly labeled FAIR TRADE.  I had never really dug into why she does this and I didn’t really care.  To each their own, I thought.

When we got home from the talk, I gave her the bar, but unfortunately it was not labeled FAIR TRADE so she politely declined the gift.  It kind of bothered me.  I thought she was being stubborn.  But having just heard the term ‘blood beans’ a half hour earlier I decided to at least find out what FAIR TRADE actually meant.  So I googled Lindt (the brand of chocolate bar) + FAIR TRADE to see if perhaps the bar was actually FAIR TRADE chocolate, so she could nibble on a bite or two.

What I discovered was frightening.  I learned the actual meaning of FAIR TRADE chocolate.

FAIR TRADE chocolate means the cocoa beans were not picked using child slaves.

What the FUCK?!?! Child Slaves?????????????!!!!!!!!!

The truth is that 40% of the world’s cocoa, including nearly 100% of the cocoa that goes into Nestle, Mars, and Hershey products comes from the Ivory Coast where they literally enslave stolen children from other countries (Mali and Burkina Faso) and force them to pick cocoa beans for little or no wage in dangerous and unhealthy, pesticide laden conditions. The US government estimates that there are up to 100,000 children in the Ivory Coast forced to work under these conditions.

“Holy Shit!!,” I yelled out.  “Non-FAIR TRADE chocolate is grown by slaves??”

“Yeah, of course.  What’d you think it meant?” she responded.

“I don’t know.  I thought it meant, you know, like that shade grown, organic coffee stuff.”

“Nope, it means it’s not grown using child slaves.”

“Uggghhhhh.”  I winced

Now, here’s what really blew my mind.   I had NO IDEA that slavery still existed in 2012 and that huge companies like Nestle and Hershey were complicit in this horrendous practice. Had it not been for a weird coincidence of seeing that talk yesterday and then accidentally purchasing the wrong type of dark chocolate for my girlfriend, I would have continued eating mass produced chocolate in ignorant bliss.  But now that I know the facts, it’s going to be impossible for me to ever eat another candy bar or other mass-produced chocolate product in good conscience.

It got me thinking…I consider myself a relatively intelligent and informed human being, but still had NO IDEA that this was going on.  I wonder how many other people have no idea that this is going on?  My guess is that it’s a lot, and that’s what compelled me to write this blog post.
With our busy lives and The Facebooks and the Twitters and all that jazz that comes out of the pipes and tubes of the Interwebz, we’re constantly on the go, moving from one thing to the next, bumping into people and other inanimate objects on the street as we type out one last email on our smart phones before we head into the next meeting.  We grab ‘get me through the day foods’ like candy bars, fast food, and Red Bull on the go without so much as thinking twice about how that food was made or where it came from.  In short, we live in a state of blissful ignorance, completely divorced from the not-so-pleasant realities about the world around us.

This whole experience has served as a bit of wake up call for me. From here on out, no more chocolate, and I am at least  going to make a effort to better understand where my food comes from.  It’s just a tiny step but I think this change is necessary.  I know I’m never going to be perfect, but I can at least ask questions and become more inquisitive about the world around me.

I’m not going to ask everyone to stop eating chocolate.  That’s a personal choice.  But I will encourage others to start thinking a little bit more about where their food actually comes from.  Ask questions. Learn facts. Start make food decisions based on knowledge and not just what advertisers tell us. And if you think this is important, share it with someone else who probably has no idea that slavery still exists in 2012.

*Stepping off my soapbox now*

For some further info on the cocoa trade, here’s a short film from CNN called the Human Cost of Chocolate.

 

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Why Your Company Needs a Mantra

This post originally appeared as a guest piece  I wrote for NBC’s INC WELL
Does your company have a mantra?  If not, stop what you are doing and develop one.  Like, right now.  It’s that important.
What the heck is a mantra?  Good question.   It’s the core purpose for why your business exists.  If you’ve ever seen Simon Sinek’s TED talk, ‘it starts with why’,  your mantra is the why.
To catch you up to speed, here’s a quick, (somewhat-bastardized) synopsis of Sinek’s TED talk:
Every business has a what a and a why.  The what explains what your business does (e.g. sells widgets).  The why explains why your company does this (e.g. to create world peace)
Let’s use Acme Electric Wheelchair company as a hypothetical.
What Acme does:  sell electric wheelchairs to non-mobile elderly folks.
Why Acme does it: to provide freedom and empowerment through mobility.
Alternatively, here is a real world example.  At GiveForward we give people online fundraising pages to raise money for their loved ones’ medical expenses.  This is what we do.  But our mantra is  create unexpected joy.  Creating a little bit of unexpected  happiness for families during an otherwise dark period in their lives is why we get up and go to work every morning. It’s what makes work fun. It’s the core purpose that is driving us.
Now that we have a basic understanding of a what a mantra is,  I suppose the next logical question is why is it important to have a mantra?
Having a mantra is important for many reasons but  one of the more practical benefits is that it acts as a filter for business decisions.  Once you understand the purpose for which your business exists, it makes it a lot easier to understand which path to take when faced with tough decisions.  Once you have a mantra in place you simply ask: is this upcoming opportunity in line with our mantra? If the answer is yes, feel free to proceed.  If the answer is no, pass on the opportunity.
For example, here’s a recent scenario where we relied on our mantra to guide our business decision.
At GiveForward, we used to have an email that automatically went out two weeks after someone donated.  It would thank them for their donation and then would explicitly ask the reader to refer others to GiveForward.  In exchange, we promised to give them a t-shirt if they did this.  This email got marked as SPAM all the time and no one ever referred people our way.
One day, a donor named Alan wrote to us and told us how much we sucked and how spammy our email was.  And he was right.  We did suck.  This email was SPAMMY and it wasn’t creating unexpected joy for anyone. So we changed it to fall in line with our mantra.  Instead of asking people to spread the word in exchange for a cheap, cotton t-shirt, we changed the email so that it said:

“Thank you for the donation you made a few weeks ago to [Joe's] fundraiser.   We hope that your act of generosity filled you with lots of warm-fuzzies.  And just in case you are in need of some extra warm fuzzy goodness today, here is the cutest video EVER “
After we made the change, I sent our friend Alan a courtesy email to let him know he was right and we were wrong.  [here's my actual email]
Dear Alan,
A couple of week ago you let us know how sucky our update email was.  And you were absolutely correct.  It was spammy and it wasn’t what GiveForward is all about.  We’ve since changed it. Thanks again for helping us see the light :-)
Sincerely,
Ethan
Now here’s the best part.  Since we changed the email, not only have we stopped getting marked as SPAM, but we’ve actually started getting fan mail from people telling us how much they love the kitten video (duh…everyone loves kittens).
The lesson here is that when you base your business decisions on a core set of values, it resonates with your fans. And if you’re  trying to build a brand that is going to last for decades or even centuries, the reality is that your fans are never buying what you do.  They’re buying why you do it – they are buying an idea, not a product.  On the other hand, when you stray from your values and make decisions based on short term objectives, you end up alienating fans and getting marked as SPAM.
At the end of the day, Mantra >  SPAM.  Be the mantra.  Don’t be the SPAM.
For further reading on these topics, check out Start with Why by Simon Sinek and Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki.
PS – Apologies for the lack of spacing between paragraphs.  WordPress was not cooperating with me this morning!
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