Coming Home

The branches were bare. The streets were quiet, still asleep. Ice lined the curbs and sidewalks while the chilly wind would make my hair dance as I’d walk towards my car. I’d leave in the morning for work to a job that I couldn’t appreciate, ready to make my day matter as much as it could within the confines of corporate definition. I would be the strongest cog I could that day — each day — in the mighty machine.

I really tried to like Procter & Gamble. After a certain point, I did come to love it in my own way, with a pride that I was part of something big that was going to change the world and make a difference. When I met others, I was excited to say that I worked for THE COMPANY. It was reassuring to be defined by something that had such an impressive history, track record and mission statement. Especially with Christmas gift boxes mailed to my house each year, free tickets to Kings Island with my friends and a network of others who were just like me — it was great to be a part of THE COMPANY.

It’s an amazing strategy to uproot brilliant people from different parts of the world, recruit them to be savvy, loyal and risk-averse and bring them to Cincinnati, Ohio. They realize how different they are from the locals around them — and how they are much more similar to others at THE COMPANY. It creates and solidifies bonds as employees make connections across THE COMPANY, but it insidiously isolates them into a bubble, away from any true reality, Cincinnati or otherwise.

Instead of feeling closer to the consumers I was supposed to be helping, I felt like I was shielded by the comfort my job afforded me. It became clear that this affected others in THE COMPANY too. This “comfort shield” kept us from truly listening and identifying with consumers. This only became more apparent when I ventured from being in the room with consumers to behind the glass with the rest of the team. Most people weren’t even paying attention. I was shocked. All of the planning and rigor and blood, sweat and tears I had been putting into my product development work with consumers was being swept aside by people who couldn’t be pushed to give a shit about what was being talked about on the other side of the glass. Despite us, we, THE COMPANY, paying several thousands of dollars preparing for these precious moments of potential, they were being squandered by people shopping on the internet, doing email or taking meetings outside in the hallway. With this and other instances, I began to realize that the others at the company were not “just like me” as I’d originally thought.

I’ve learned that for the best product developers, most consumer research is redundant and unnecessary. This is because the best product developers are equal parts visionaries, empathizers and instigators. As Henry Ford once famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” The best product developers are able to create great products because they can empathize with the consumers without actually having to talk to them about their product usage. They, like House or Sherlock Holmes, use clues about what the consumers are saying (especially what they’re not saying) and use these to deduce the truth about motivations, needs, and desires. They use this information and other learning to empathize/sympathize with the consumers. Then, they are visionaries because they love learning (they never stop!) and are well-versed in their field, in technology and are constantly keeping abreast of new innovations every day. Most importantly, they know how to uniquely connect the dots together. So once they empathize and sympathize, they use their vision to recommend and put together something that will be great. Then, they instigate and make it freakin’ happen.

Most consumer research isn’t for the best product developers, though. Surprise! It’s for marketers and managers. Marketers are the ones who often control the budgets and aren’t able to do all of the things that the best product developers do. It’s really unfortunate — we, the product developers, end up doing several more iterations of research than is actually required because we’re trying to get it spelled out to the marketers and managers so they can just give us some damn money to put together a great product. Marketers need it to be spelled out to them because they are so far removed from the consumers and products. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the truth — they are spread too thin to be close enough to really know their consumers and products. Managers need the research because they want to have some data to point to if/when something goes wrong. They don’t want to take the risk of screwing something up without a data point to back them up. When you compound these effects, it results in organizations that won’t innovate because the incentives are all wrong. Instead, it promotes a culture with a fear of failure. In that case, you better have great leaders who are clued in to the market and consumers and products and aren’t afraid of taking risks — or you will most certainly fail without their leadership.

But, honestly, a lot of times it feels like the people you work with lack compassion on such a basic level that they can’t be bothered to stop and listen to someone they don’t know because they’re too preoccupied with something happening in their lives. I’ve got news for you — you’re never going to be able to make a difference in other people’s lives if you’ve got your head up your ass and are too preoccupied to stop and even listen to someone else. Trust me, I get it. We are all insanely busy. But, if you can’t even stop to listen to them tell you their story, how would you expect to be able to take the time to build them a great product and change their life and the eventually, the world? It just isn’t going to happen. Plus, if you did actually listen to them, you would hear some really great stories. I have learned so much just by meeting different people from all walks of life and just listening to them. It has made me a better person, truly. The best leaders that I’ve met at THE COMPANY seem to follow this principle too.

My greatest frustration about my epiphany that seemingly nobody cared about the work I was doing was this: no matter how hard I tried, no matter how much work I put in, no matter how at the top of my game I tried to be as an innovator and a visionary… it wasn’t going to matter because no one was listening to me. If so many weren’t even listening to the consumers, why would they listen to my recommendations?

Several questions entered my mind. Why hadn’t I figured this out sooner? Why had I tried so hard? Why did I feel so intensely loyal to the consumers and willing to work within a system that was so screwed up? Does anyone else feel the way I do? How did I not realize sooner that everyone else is motivated by so many other things besides THE CONSUMER and making great products? Isn’t that what was supposed to be at the core of what we were doing every day — day in and day out? How was I so naïve and idealistic?

It became clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to change the world at Procter & Gamble. I decided I wasn’t going to spend my best years trying to convince others to let me do what I know I can do well — create great products that make sense. After almost 7 years in, I decided to throw in the towel.

March 6th, 2015 was my last day at Procter & Gamble.

I left the company with the love and support of many great people who knew I wanted to leave to create my own company. I am grateful for them, their support, and all the things I learned while I was at P&G. Deep down, it made me comforted by the fact that I wasn’t so wrong about them. For many, they too wanted to change the world and make a positive difference… but for different reasons they ended up trying to abide by a very messed up system within a mighty machine, which was something I wasn’t willing to do anymore. I needed to go out and define my own machine, hopefully a much better one, to create my own rules and, eventually, my own products.

After my last day at P&G, I embarked on my new journey as a full-time entrepreneur. The next day, Saturday, I mentored at HackOTR at the practice pitch session. On Sunday, I met with the co-chairs of Girl Develop It, to pitch to them that I should be their new evangelist and marketer, that I was going to help bridge the Cincinnati Startup ecosystem with the burgeoning girl developer community. On Monday morning, I met with a technical founder in search of a co-founder and on Monday evening, I attended a pitch competition I had applied to pitch at the previous Thursday. I didn’t get selected to pitch, but I went anyway to support the Cincinnati Startup Community and my friends who were selected to pitch. Full-time entrepreneurship had been a whirlwind and I wasn’t even a week in yet. [A cautionary note here — while it seems my “entrepreneurship start” was instant — this was all work that had been almost two years in the making as I had started trying to “break in” to the Cincinnati Startup scene since October 2013.]

On Tuesday, I left for Texas to spend time with my family and be a part of my brother’s wedding. Thanks to my “last day at P&G” post on Facebook, several of my family members were wondering about what my next steps would be. I had hoped to play it low-key and not really talk about having left the company just yet. Everything was (and is) so new, I wanted time to sink in to becoming a full-time entrepreneur. But, as several full-time entrepreneurs and founders will tell you… that’s just not how it works.

Flash forward to today — it’s been 6 weeks and 3 days since my last day and each day has been a new and different day. Of the last 6 weeks, 2 were spent in Texas, ~2 were spent in Cincinnati, and ~2 were spent in the UK. I just got back from Ireland late on Saturday and am getting used to my old-new life. Unpacking, getting over jetlag… There have been no dull moments so far and I feel like my full-time entrepreneurship path is off to the right start.

Today, Monday, April 20, 2015, is my first full-day back in Cincinnati as a full-time entrepreneur. I feel the weight of having left P&G and great friends and co-workers behind. But, I also feel a certain lightness — that the future is mine to define and unfold without any of the barriers that existed before. I will carve my own path and it will be daunting, challenging and I will fail. But, I will also continue, persevere, and learn all along the way. It will make me better. It will make me stronger.

When I walked to my car this morning, the birds were chirping. Green buds have emerged from the branches of the trees since I last saw them along this familiar walk. The nice, brisk wind made my hair dance and I couldn’t help but smile in the warm thought that in more ways than one — I was finally home and Spring had brought new life.