Everything I Ever Needed to Know (About Startups), I Learned From Santa Claus

Kurt Leafstrand
Dec 22, 2014 · 5 min read

Yes, the holidays may come but once a year, but the wisdom of the season can last the whole year ‘round. As I’m taking some time off to reflect on what’s most important in life (my family, close friends, those in need, timeless questions about the meaning of life and our significance in the universe, etc.), as an entrepreneur I also, for better or worse, can’t quite get business out of my mind.

And over the last few days, as sightings of the man in red have increased, I realized there was quite a bit that we in the startup community could learn from Jolly Old Saint Nick. Here’s my take — perhaps you’d like to share some more:

1. It’s all about the customer experience

When some of the world’s leading brands like Coca-Cola orient their entire seasonal advertising campaign around you, you know you’re doing something right. But it goes deeper than that. Even the parts of the business that no one ever gets to directly see, from the construction of the sleigh, the use of flying reindeer (heck, genetically breeding one particular reindeer so that its nose bears the iconic Santinian red glow), to the just-in-time delivery of perfectly-wrapped gifts custom-tailored to the dreams of every girl and boy: flawless. Absolutely flawless.

For startups, that means crafting a holistic, yet simple, customer experience that can grow and scale with your user base. Santa saw the population explosion coming, and he was ready. Are you?

The vintage look, the mirth: It’s all there, all the time

2. Sweat the small stuff

Yeah, he makes his list. But he also checks it twice. That red nose we just talked about: it’s not just for branding; it’s also about being prepared to navigate through the most extreme weather Mother Nature has to offer. Today (December 22nd), the Wall Street Journal reports that UPS is on target to deliver 34 million packages. Santa: Try a couple of billion.

Kris Kringle knows that one misdelivered package can steal the joy from a child (and cause even more pain for his or her parents). Instacart delivered my wife an enormous food-service-sized can of ketchup from Costco on her first order, instead of a family-sized bottle. An understandable mistake, but frustrating. Two hours later, a manager delivered the right item with a personal apology. That’s sweating it, and winning a customer for life.

Every package counts

3. Team, team, team

If you’ve seen Elf, you’ve gotten a view into life at Santa’s Workshop that previously had never been seen. It’s not all milk-and-cookies up at the North Pole. It’s an intense, performance-driven culture, and if you’re not making the cut, it’s time to find a new gig.

Santa has rigorous processes in place to assess performance and provides world-class coaching from more senior elves who’ve been working for hundreds of years longer than new apprentices. But, if you’re not cutting it, with a jolly smile and a lot of compassion, Santa sends you on your way to find your true calling.

Startup culture should be no different. From early on, strong, mentoring-oriented performance management to help grow and develop your people is critical. What’s often so hard is finding the time to do it in the midst of the craziness of growing your business. Santa’s business is no different, and he manages to pull it off. You should make it a priority as well in 2015.

Sorry Buddy, you didn’t make the cut

4. Know your users

Long before customer focus groups and Mixpanel, Santa understood that there’s nothing more important than listening to your customers. Every year without fail, tens of thousands of his assistants canvas the world to interview millions of individual children to understand their exact needs, often down to the finest detail: what color of ski outfit for a favorite doll, which Hobbit-inspired Lego set. All of it is noted, collected, and fed back into one of the world’s most sophisticated manufacturing operation to make sure everything is ready for Christmas Eve.

Santa heard about drones three years ago. He knew that no one wanted a Wii U until Super Smash Brothers came out. He knows whether the iPhone 6 Plus will eventually overtake the iPhone 6, but he’s not going to tell you. Take a cue from him, and redouble your efforts to listen to your customer even if you think you already know what they’re going to say. It’s a lesson I need to constantly relearn and it always pays dividends.

Just get the kid the gun, already

5. Finally: show grace

To me, the most important and profound thing that Santa has to teach the startup community is this: for all of the talk about coal in your stocking, I think most of us, in spite of our naughtiness, have found that in the end Santa cuts us some slack and comes through with the goods.

This is incredibly relevant to startups in at least two ways. First, in our internal relationships with our teams, assuming the best of our teams and empowering them to do the right thing can yield huge dividends. Commit to avoiding micromanagement in the new year, but also (see learning #3) make sure you’re equipping your team with what they need to be successful.

For customers, showing grace and giving them the benefit of the doubt not only wins them over for life, but also allows you to capture new learnings that you may not have been able to get if you had just assumed you were “right.” Often, taking more time to deal with the customer’s challenges and frustrations and empathizing with them is the most powerful way possible to move your business forward.

Don’t be a grinch

Give these a try, and see what Santa leaves under your startup’s tree next year! It could be more than you ever could have wished for.

Happy holidays from all of us at Clari, and we leave you with our own little bit of holiday cheer… enjoy!

    Kurt Leafstrand

    Written by

    Product guy (@clarihq), coffee guy. Usually in that order.

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