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Startups, keep it personal: build your company for people

There is a plethora of startup advice out there: find your market need, get an MVP (minimal viable product), find funding, expand, go global, rinse, repeat.

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However, most advice (and I say most, not all) seems to ignore a fundamental aspect of not only where business is heading, but also the internet — to the more personal and human.

You just have to look at the impact of social media to get a clear picture of this: gone are the days of hiding behind pseudonyms and pictures of your favourite cartoon characters, people are who they say they are now on the internet — crazy stuff. The web is fast becoming about authority, and to become an authority, or to get endorsed by your fellow authoritarians you need to be a person. Honesty is an online currency.

If you have a startup, and I think especially pertinent if you have a web startup, showing the real person (or persons) behind the company can add much-needed trust to your company’s reputation. This is a matter of presence.

However, it’s not just about being humans behind your own company — that’s an essential part of where we are today and the accepted culture of the internet — but what is perhaps more important for young companies is how you treat your customers/clients. Behind every purchase, website browse, support ticket et cetera is a living, breathing human being, and I would argue that rather than just serving a market need or gap, you need to serve people.

Here’s the theory: when you’re thinking about your company strategy, image, message or goals, keep people in mind, not just revenue targets or other metrics. Sure if you have investors to please those metrics might be unavoidable, but the people you serve should be at the very core of your company identity.

Think of it from the very beginning. Rather than picking a market or industry and designing your startup around whatever gap or problem you see there to fill or solve, pick a group of people who you wish to serve. Who is your ideal customer? Be as specific as possible, give that customer a name, age, occupation, favourite food, everything. Finding out who Jane is, for example, means that you can find a problem unique to Jane, and then aim to solve that.

By building your company for people, rather than ideas and concepts, you’ll be more motivated, and perhaps it will even help you stand out more than your competitors. It will certainly give your work more meaning.

Ask yourself, why did you become an entrepreneur? Was it to become rich and famous? Or was it about improving other people’s lives, and to impact the world positively? If you are thinking of entrepreneurship as just an exchange of resources, then perhaps you have some soul-searching to do.

The concept of “upserving”.

Related to this is the concept of upserving — a simple concept introduced to me by author Daniel Pink in his book, To Sell is Human, and I feel it’s quite pertinent to startups. At its core upserving is going beyond what a customer or client expects for the reason that they are human beings. As Pink puts it, upserving is, “taking the extra steps that transform a mundane interaction into a memorable experience.”

Customers all expect something. For example, if you sell hotdogs, they expect the dog to be well-cooked, the roll to be fresh, and there to be a selection of condiments at their disposal. If a customer has a problem and complains (perhaps the dog was cold on this particular day), a regular business response would be to apologise, and offer them a free hotdog the next time they come in. But that’s the bare minimum right? There’s no effort there, you’ll be cooking dogs all day, you just have to give one away for free on the day that begrudged customer comes in.

To upserve here would be to apologise, offer the free dog… and actually drive it down to the customer whenever they want it. Turning not only a mundane interaction into a memorable experience, but actually getting effective results (perhaps word-of-mouth marketing, or just keeping a customer loyal).

A prime example of this is Yuppiechef, a company that built its entire brand around the idea of upserving. Buy a Yuppiechef knife: get a hand-written card in the mail with your product. A month later get another card asking if you are enjoying the knife. It’s personal, because Yuppiechef remembers that every customer is a human being, and all they want is to be treated like one. It’s upserving, because no one expects a handwritten card from a company.

Amazon has done this well for years too. I’ve had a couple of experiences of my orders not arriving, and Amazon not only refunded my shipping costs but also re-sent the order on priority shipping at no charge to me — the customer. Their replies weren’t automated either, but addressed my specific order and treated me like a person. Next time I’m considering buying online, I’m definitely going to remember a company that handles lost orders/returns better than the rest.

Keeping it personal and upserving are particular concepts that I think web-startups can apply to how they handle support (tickets). As a customer there is nothing more infuriating than writing an email due to a frustration bred out of a company’s service to get an automated response, or worse — a support-staff reply bashing out a script. Support staff should be trained to treat people as people, and the results will be tangible.

Remember why you got into this startup-biz in the first place: for people (we hope), and act accordingly. Your company’s reputation can only benefit from this approach.

Images: Lucas Jans (left), Utpal (right) via Flickr.

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