Lawn signs don’t vote

And other startup lessons from my time on the Obama campaign

Watching results on election night in an ill-fitting shirt

In 2008, I had just graduated college and took a job as a Field Organizer with Obama for America. After a long weekend of training in St. Louis, a couple of us were dropped into the middle of Missouri to help lead the campaign’s efforts there.

Our job was to open up offices, recruit volunteers, host events, organize phonebanks and canvassing, work with local leaders, and deal with whatever fires came our way.

I had never worked in politics before. Even worse, my budget was $0.

I’d ask my bosses on the campaign — “hey, we need pens.” They’d cut me off. “We’re trying to win an election. I don’t care about your pens. Find pens.”

We all grew to appreciate—and adapt—that mindset.

We got a lot of calls asking for lawn signs. We started responding the same way: “lawn signs don’t vote. Are you free Saturday to knock some doors?” We’d say that if stickers won elections, Ron Paul had it in the bag.

The campaign had a famous disdain for everything not focused on the hard work at hand, whether that distraction was swag, meetings for the sake of meetings, or non-strategic “awareness events.”

It wasn’t because of the literal cost. It was because of the opportunity cost. Focusing on those things can have a negative impact.

Why? Because putting up a sign in our yard allows us to feel a sense of accomplishment. I did something today. That feeling may not change any votes, but it will enable us to feel satisfied enough to avoid the hard work that really needs to be done.

It’s easy to put up a sign. It’s much harder to knock on doors, call that local leader who is mad at you, or send fifty followups for a neighborhood event.

Applying that to a business

Right after the election, I went full-time to start Clique with Ted.

We quickly saw how easy it was to focus on things that would make us feel like a “real company” — business cards, perfect pitch decks, an Instagram account, an office space. It was harder to comb through an excel sheet for hours, teach yourself a new framework, land business, do redesign #6, or have a tough conversation about someone’s performance.

But we’ve been at our best when we ask ourselves the question that drove the campaign: What will actually accomplish something today, and what will just make us feel like we did?

John Wooden said it well:

“Never mistake activity for achievement.”

Now that we’re a team of 30 people, we try to keep that focus on what we’re here to do: designing and building great things for growing organizations. I still don’t hand out business cards. We finally got around to setting up that Instagram account.

It’s not because those things don’t matter. In an ideal world, we’d care about everything at once.

But for now, we’re focused on the work. The rest is lawn signs.