A year on my own

A year ago, after having worked in big companies my entire life, I decided to start a company of my own. I figured I would mark my anniversary by answering the question people ask me most:

“How’s it going?”

The trade-offs quickly became obvious

It didn’t take long for me to experience the advantages. Immediately, I was in control of my time and my work, and that was both empowering and fulfilling. Like shedding a heavy overcoat that had grown increasingly uncomfortable, I left behind the mundane anxieties, the manufactured drama, and the sheer senselessness of some of what I did each day. I felt lighter. I felt liberated.

The disadvantage was equally clear: the paycheck that was deposited twice a month was no longer going to arrive.

Building my way forward

Though I had published Working Out Loud a year earlier, and had interacted with people and companies in different countries, I had no firm idea how I would make a living. I figured I could deliver presentations and workshops, and do some consulting. But I knew many people who were doing the same and were struggling. Why would I be different?

So I tried experiment after experiment. Most didn’t amount to much, but each one helped me practice my craft or get feedback on a new idea. They refined my sense of the work I wanted to do as well as what other people valued. After six months or so, I had a few more customers and an emerging sense of what I could offer them.

And so it continues. I’m writing this on a train in Germany where I’ll work with five different companies in four cities. More experiments. More learning. My fledgling business isn’t a success, it's a work in progress. Step by step.

I can’t say I’d recommend what I’m doing to someone else. The odds are too high. Most days it feels like there’s no ground beneath your feet. As a result, I have more compassion for my former self, working at big corporations for so long. I also have more respect than ever for anyone who tries to build something on their own, whatever it is.

Finding my ikigai

A year ago, I named my new company “Ikigai” after the Japanese word for “a reason for living.” I feel like I’ve found my ikigai now. It’s to change how people relate to each other, to themselves, and to the work they do. When I get it right, the methods I’m developing help individuals be more effective and feel happier. They make work more human, compassionate, and connected. Maybe someday they’ll change the culture of a company, or even a country. Step by step.

I think the photo of me and my daughter on a rollercoaster captures how I feel after my first year on my own. I’m happy and excited and scared all at the same time. There’s so much to do and so much I don’t know. But the feeling of purpose makes it worth it. Just like that rollercoaster, I can’t wait to get back on for another ride.

The best way to implement social tools & practices

If you want to change how large companies work - if you want to eliminate all the waste you know is there while uncovering more commercial opportunities - you can learn a lot from the founder of a Silicon Valley start-up focused on 3D instant messaging. In most social business efforts, you work on your use cases. You research the technology. You plan everything as best you can leading up to a big launch, and then...you see what happens.

That may teach you something about what works and doesn’t work. But that method of learning costs a lot and takes an awfully long time. And, unfortunately, it’s exactly the approach I’ve been taking.

Until now.

The problem

When it comes to social tools and practices, we simply don’t know the best ways to apply them nor which problems we should try to solve in our firms. In the midst of this uncertainty, we need to try different things - some of which will fail - while we learn.

The problem is that, in most of the companies we’re trying to change - firms with annual budget and performance review cycles - we’re used to planning our way out of uncertainty. And we ask questions at the end.

Why aren’t more users signing up? Why aren’t people using the new features? Why isn't it working as we'd planned?

Even if you do a brilliant job executing your idea, waiting till the end to learn how effective it will be turns your brilliant execution into a wasteful meander through the possibilities.

Treat your social business effort like a “Lean Startup”

A different and extraordinarily useful approach is described in detail by Eric Ries in “Lean Startup".  (Ries defines startups as “any human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty” - a definition that certainly applies to social business efforts.)

Many of the concepts in the book will be familiar, since the approach includes some of the basic methods from the lean manufacturing and quality movements. Examples include using Toyota’s “5 Whys” for root cause analysis and genchi genbutsu for investigating problems in the field.

The big innovation, though, comes from combining these ideas with modern development techniques. Concepts like agile development and user stories. Techniques like building a Minimum Viable Product (one with just those features that allow the product to be deployed and no more). And using cohort analysis (measuring user engagement over time) versus vanity metrics (things like registered users, downloads, and pageviews that don’t necessarily correlate to measures relevant to your business model).

Ries successfully weaves all of these far-ranging ideas into a simple framework you can use whenever you’re trying to “create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”

Build, Measure, Learn

At its core, the framework is a feedback loop focused on quickly learning what you need to do to transform ideas (hypotheses about what will be effective) into products (the minimum thing you need to test the idea) that can generate customer feedback that can then further shape your ideas.

That is, when you have an idea, your first thought shouldn’t be “how will we implement it?” but “what’s a fast, inexpensive way we can test this idea with customers?”

As Ries says, “although we write the feedback loop as Build-Measure-Learn because the activities happen in that order, our planning really works in the reverse order: we figure out what we need to learn and then work backwards to see what product will work as an experiment to get that learning.”

The way forward

As we try to change the way we work, vision and strategy are still important. They’re just not enough.

“Only 5 percent of entrepreneurship is the big idea, the business model, the whiteboard strategizing, and the splitting of the spoils. The other 95 percent is the gritty work that is measured by innovation accounting; product prioritization decisions; deciding which customers to target or listen to, and having the courage to subject a grand visions to constant testing and feedback.”

As we try to understand which problems to solve, which customers to work with, which incentives to use, we can embrace the fact that we don’t know what will be effective.

And then we can get to work, using the Lean Startup approach to turn uncertainty into a set of quick, inexpensive experiments that can guide our learning and help us make the difference we know we can make.