Giving your startup a point of view

Written on 17th April, 2011
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Something I’ve mentioned before at the start of a post is that I often look back on quotes, blogs and books I’ve read by some of the great minds of startups and don’t fully take on board what they meant until some time later. This week, there came a point where I felt like I understood what the following great 37signals quote means for me:

"Great businesses have a point of view, not just a product or service."

What does it mean to have a point of view?

Gradually over the last four months of working on my latest venture, it has become apparent that the values I had in mind for it have now become a core part of the startup, and not only within the culture of the small two person team but also expressed by the many users who spread the word of the product.

For my startup, Buffer, we’re in the Twitter tool space and there are many other tools out there which offer some form of scheduling. We offer this, and we’re very aware that there is a fine line between a tool which helps you optimise, and a tool which encourages you to Tweet in non-genuine ways. So our point of view is “we encourage people to Tweet in a genuine way, because we believe that is the most effective way to make the most of Twitter”, and it flows throughout our team and our users. It means that all decisions are tied to the point of view, and we are very cautious about acting in ways which would not be in line with the point of view we have adopted which is to encourage people to use Twitter in a more effective but still genuine way. These actions can be simply the communication via email or on platforms like Twitter, or it could be the choice of features and changes to the product.

Why would you want to have a point of view?

I believe having a “point of view” means that you can build a much stronger position in the market, and you can more easily get others on board to help you grow through word of mouth. It can really differentiate you from other products in the market, especially if you are in a market which has “norms” and your values are different from those norms.

Another great thing about having a point of view is that it can really help you with your customer development. I see part of customer development as discovering and validating customers. Another part is listening to those users and deciding whether you should add or remove features based on their feedback. When you have a point of view, the decision of whether to add a feature is much easier, since you can ask yourself whether it is in line with the point of view and values you’re trying to stick to.

A third reason you might have a point of view is that it can reduce the risk from competitors. It is up to you as a startup to differentiate yourself and create a more compelling offering. The great part is that your offering also includes the message around the product. The point of view you adopt can truly affect whether people will choose you over someone else. If you can express the point of view in a way in which others are convinced to share the same point of view, then competitors not only need a stronger product offering but also need to show users that they have a better point of view.

What is the best way to express the point of view?

It is easy to read the 37signals quote above and assume that having a point of view is all about forcing your opinions on your users or audience. I’ve found that doing almost the opposite is the best way to get people on your side and spreading your point of view on your behalf. My thinking with this comes from the great Dale Carnegie and his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. If people ask for a feature which isn’t inline with our point of view, we use some of the techniques Carnegie proposes. Here are a couple:

Start by agreeing with the user - this shows that you are truly on their side. It is easy to agree with them, because in almost every case they have a great point.

Show you are open to them changing your mind - phrases such as “I could be wrong, as I often am, but I feel that perhaps” can really show that you are open to suggestions. Simply showing you are open to change, people often are much more likely to agree with you. It has to be done genuinely, of course.

I’ve been lucky to have a great co-founder who has not only adopted the point of view I tried to instill in my latest startup but has also taken it further and done some fantastic marketing in a way which has created a community of people who are not only spreading the word of our service but also spreading the point of view we have taken.

Do you have a point of view for your startup? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Update: This post has been cross-posted in Chinese on 36kr.com, you can read it here. A big thank-you to Abe Li.

Photo credit: Matt Katzenberger