The Worst Ideas I Had As A Founder (That Went Extremely Well)
Much of this information is taken from my new book Explosive Growth — A Few Things I Learned Growing To 100 Million Users & Losing $78 Million.
There is one truth that all founders — I don’t care if you’re a former CEO or a 22 year-old college dropout — must come to terms with:
Most of your ideas are bad.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Having bad ideas is just part of being human. Your “CEO & Founder” business cards don’t come with a brain implant that stops you from having dumb ideas in the shower (Look at that! Another terrible startup idea!).
The difference between a successful founder and a failed founder isn’t always the quality of their ideas. It is their willingness to put even their seemingly worst ideas to the test.
My career is a testament to this fact. I founded AreYouInterested? (now known as FirstMet), which was the first successful Facebook dating app, and now connects over 30,000,000 singles.
As Tony Robbins says, “There is no such thing as failure, only results.” And I firmly believe that the more results you get, the more you learn, and the closer you get to success. This philosophy became a core value at my company, and why we believed in testing nearly any idea, regardless of how bad I thought it was.
#ExplosiveGrowthTip: If you want more out of life, or have any fears that are holding you back, attend the Tony Robbins event, “Unleash The Power Within.” This event dramatically changed my life for the better.
I’ve written before about some of the different growth strategies we executed as a young startup, but I’ve never written about the “What the heck, let’s try it out.” moments that generated explosive growth for AYI.
The truth is, many of my most successful growth strategies began as horrible-sounding, off the cuff ideas. For example…
1. The Hottie Feature
I was a very product-focused founder — and by that, I mean I used my own dating app to find dates.
There was one afternoon where I was getting ready to head home from the office, when I glanced over at my senior engineer’s monitor. He was scrolling through AreYouInterested?, but his feed looked completely different than mine.
My feed was full of the people who used our service, which meant an eclectic mix.
His feed was full of women who I assumed were supermodels.
I assumed it must be a weird coincidence, so I went over to his desk and asked him if he’d ever seen this happen before. His response was not what I was expecting:
“Promise me you won’t be mad?”
That’s generally not what you want to hear from your developer.
“I spend 10 hours every day looking at the site while I work on it, and I’d prefer it if I only saw beautiful women. So I built this feature for myself that filters the women I see in my feed according to how often people engage with their profiles. In other words, if a woman is more sought after — generally meaning more beautiful — she appears in my feed.”
What he was describing was a more primitive version of Tinder’s famous ELO rating, roughly 3 years before Tinder ever existed.
#ExplosiveGrowthTip: Try to hire employees who will also use your product, because they will have some of the best ideas and will outperform non-user employees. Visit the Explosive Growth website to see my Top 10 Growth Tips For Entrepreneurs.
He was expecting me to lose my temper about him messing around with the product, and so my response startled him a bit.
I paused, gave it some thought, overlooked the obvious interpretation of shallowness, and responded, “You’re a genius! Can we ship it as a feature by tomorrow?”
I called it “The Hottie Feature,” and everyone on the team thought it was the dumbest idea. From the name to the functionality, no one thought it was going to work.
But it did. Tens of thousands of users were happy to pay an extra fee to only see beautiful people in their feeds, and as a result, The Hottie Feature — one of the dumbest-sounding ideas I’ve ever had, if you asked my team at the time — generated millions in revenue for AYI.
2. Free In-Office Massages For Everyone
At one point in our history, AreYouInterested? was faced a struggle every successful startup deals with:
Scaling quickly was destroying our culture.
We had grown incredibly quickly, and everyone’s workload was increasing. As our teams grew larger and our task lists elongated, culture started to slip away.
Getting out in front of the problem, we had a giant brainstorming session where we invited people from all over the company to come and share not only their experiences, but their ideas for activities that would reinforce our culture better.
One idea that gained instant popularity was the suggestion that everyone in the company should get a monthly, in-office massage.
More accurately, the idea was instantly popular with everyone but me.
Being the data-driven marketer that I am, I instantly calculated that we would be losing 10 hours of productivity for people to essentially fall asleep during work. I also calculated the wildcard risks associated with paying someone to come in and touch all of my employees.
However, as a data-driven marketer, I also believe in testing everything, so we gave it a try.
It was the single best thing we ever did for our culture.
People were so excited about the massages, mass chaos ensued on sign up day. One of our engineers actually developed a service — on his own time — to randomly select the massage schedule.
In no particular order, the benefits included:
- We had, without fail, near-perfect attendance on every massage day. At a company of our size, it’s pretty rare to have 100% of your staff on hand.
- People were actually more productive and happier after massages than before.
- Our culture was reinforced. Everyone understood what we were trying to build a company where everyone is mission-focused and high-achieving, but where their leadership is willing to do whatever they need to stay healthy and happy.
It’s been 8 years now, and the massages are still a mainstay of the office.
#ExplosiveGrowthTip: Do you offer fifteen-minute in-office massages to all employees at least monthly? Trust me, do it.
3. Throwing Out Our Roadmap — Momentarily
One of the things every growth-minded founder has is a roadmap. You want to hit x goal by y date, and you’re going to track these KPIs to make sure you’re on track.
As your company grows, however, your goals get more complicated, your list of KPIs grows, and eventually, your roadmap actually stifles innovation.
It took me a while to notice when I first experienced this. All of my experience as a founder had taught me that having a detailed growth roadmap was the only way to keep your team focus on what mattered, and to move quicker than your competition.
That mindset had served me really well. Our company was worth over $100 million, our team had exploded in size, and everything seemed to be humming along well.
But we were stagnating.
We were missing that same furious pace, the fountain of new, employee-generated ideas that had really driven our innovation so far.
Speaking with our head of engineering, I asked him what he perceived the problem to be. His answer was exactly the opposite of what I expected:
“We’ve hired really talented people, but talented people only do great work when they’re given freedom and challenged to solve new and interesting problems.”
In other words, having our best engineers focused on fixing critical bugs and our top product managers tasked with eeking out 3% growth, both very important items to me that would contribute millions to the bottom line, was of little interest to the most talented employees.
#ExplosiveGrowthTip: If you want to retain and motivate talented employees, make sure they are working on the biggest challenges and opportunities instead of the biggest problems. Are your most talented people working on the biggest opportunities instead of the biggest problems?
I couldn’t believe it. I was thinking about ways to increase productivity, and here was my top engineer telling me I needed to demand less productivity.
I was skeptical, to say the least.
But, willing to test any idea, we tried it out. We implemented a monthly 3 day hackathon where employees could work on whatever they wanted, with suggested topics if they needed inspiration.
The results were incredible. The process had so many benefits, including:
- Team members felt free to swing for the fences — and miss — because failure wasn’t a big deal. As a result, we had a lot of strikeouts, but we also had some home runs.
- People who would never otherwise talk to each other were collaborating. Customer support reps were giving ideas to engineers, marketers were guiding product managers, and as a result, the overall education level of the company rose.
- Morale increased across the board. By telling your team, “This is a time to only work on things that excite you,” you’re telling your team that their excitement and passion are important.
- Individuals who would never contribute in creative ways were motivated to. We had one engineer who had never contributed a single idea develop a genius new messaging feature, just because we offered a pair of tickets to The Book of Mormon to whoever won the hackathon.
Some truly innovative work came out of those hackathons, including a predictive model that forecasted the future revenues of marketing campaigns, based on initial user interactions — something tech writers today would refer to as AI.
#ExplosiveGrowthTip: Make sure your employees have ways to be creative and try their own ideas? Do you have a monthly hackathon?
4. Our Secret Hiring Weapon: The Beer Test
In 2011, we raised a lot of money, and we did what any recently-funded company would do — we spent it. In our case, we spent it by hiring aggressively.
We listened to what the “experts” on Wall Street said, and we grew our staff from a collection of twentysomething tech people to an expanded talent pool with a lot of more “experienced” people making over $200,000 per year.
Those people looked great on paper, were impressive to outsiders, and gave us a nice bump in perceived maturity as an organization, but unfortunately, they were a total culture clash.
One giant issue was our development cycle. We were a very lean and agile organization. We wanted to start the morning with an idea, build it, and push it live to users the next day. We would often perform twenty to thirty code pushes in a single day.
That became a big problem, however, when we hired high-priced senior leaders who were used to pushing one new feature per month (or quarter), because they wanted to thoroughly test, measure, and perfect each feature before launch.
The cautious, controlling mindset of our new hires clashed intensely with the high-speed, creative mindset of our original team, and it led to us eventually letting go of many of our new hires.
To prevent this from ever happening again, someone suggested “The Beer Test.”
As part of every job interview, we would take the interviewee out for at least one hour of social activity — bowling, karaoke, drinking, whatever — and if their personalities clashed with our team, they were a no hire.
I couldn’t think of anything dumber than singing karaoke with a potential engineering hire — but it worked.
After implementing The Beer Test, we had several rounds of hiring where we dodged landmines — people who interview well, but are complete culture clashes — and our overall retention went way up as a result.
More importantly, employees starting staying later at work, and even hang out together on the weekend, which had an amazing impact on the culture, productivity, and overall happiness of everybody.
#ExplosiveGrowthTip: Don’t hire someone you wouldn’t want to have a beer with (or hang out with) after work. Several of our best ideas came as a result of hanging out with coworkers outside of work. Do you want to enjoy a beer with most of your coworkers?
5. That Stupid, Incredible Heart Icon ❤️
One of our guiding principles at AreYouInterested was that anyone — regardless of position in the company — could contribute an idea, and if that idea could be quickly implemented and tested, we’d do it.
Our best ideas, as a rule, didn’t come from people with the highest salaries who were normally tasked with generating new ideas.
In fact, the largest chunk of them came from the administrative and support staff, who were among the lowest-paid employees at the company. When you think about it, this actually makes a lot of sense. The customer service team interacts with the customers substantially more, perhaps infinitely more, than management, and is therefore acutely aware of the customer’s needs, desires, and pain-points. Yet rarely are they empowered to contribute ideas or encouraged to interact with the decision makers.
That’s another interesting lesson I’m going to take with me wherever I go — seek creativity and feedback from everyone in the organization, because you never know where true genius may be hiding.
To ensure that I and other leaders remained connected to the users, we had the ‘community team’ send a weekly summary of the top issues and ideas from users and their ideas as well for management to discuss.
One of the ideas was to put a heart icon in the subject line of certain emails.
I thought, “That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”
Of course, I didn’t say it, because it would have been extremely destructive to the brainstorming process (and to our core values).
The rules of our culture indicated that as long as an idea could be reasonably implemented, and didn’t harm the user experience, we had to try it. So, we tested putting a heart icon in the subject line of certain emails, and lo and behold, the amount of emails opened increased by 18 percent.
#ExplosiveGrowthTip: I found that many of our best ideas came from the customer service team, which makes sense since they are acutely aware of the customers’ needs. Is your customer service team empowered to contribute ideas? Have you tested an idea recently that your customer service team was passionate about?
Try Anything, Test Everything
If you take anything away from this story, take this:
If an idea can be quickly implemented and a/b tested — and it is isn’t blatantly offensive or destructive — you owe it to your team to try it.
Worst case scenario, you lose a little work time. Best case scenario, you stumble into explosive growth.Two books that I highly recommend about testing ideas are The Lean Startup By Eric Ries and You Should Test That by Chris Goward, which are both on my list of the Best Books For Entrepreneurs.
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Cliff Lerner is the author of Explosive Growth — A Few Things I Learned Growing To 100 Million Users and Losing $78 Million. Read more of Cliff’s thoughts on startups, viral marketing, entrepreneurship, and bitcoin at The Explosive Growth Book Website.