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Somehow, in a business built on the backs of premiere design talent, we managed to build a crappy user experience for Thinktiv.
A little over a year ago I realized the way in which we performed our acceleration services was sub-optimal – borderline broken. Our results, or market performance, were satisfactory, sometimes very good. The issue was, companies tended to love the outcome of working with us, but they didn’t love the experience working with us. We work very quickly and that creates a pressure “to get to right answers” at an alarming pace. There’s a degree of subjectivity to determine whether an answer is ‘right,’ and we weren’t very good at digesting the chaos that could be caused by taste differences between key stakeholders. This caused companies to perceive our initiatives were rushed, complicated and emotional.
Prior to 2011, projects would slow down as they progressed and we’d either have to execute herculean efforts to complete on time or we’d have to simplify and minimize the amount of impact we knew we could have in order to fit inside timing and financial constraints. We had spent time optimizing our services approach to try to improve, but it was clear to me we had to throw the whole thing out. It was all destined to regress towards average as we scaled and “if you ain’t first, you’re last.”
I approached Justin Petro in the winter of 2010. I wasn’t more than a few minutes into explaining my thinking when he said, “yes, I’m with you.” We realized we had one of those rare opportunities to ‘pivot’ an aspect of our business while continuing to meet our growth goals.
We agreed on several things:
To get started, we decided to dig into one critical portion of our services model first – our brand creation practice.
Building brands is challenging in early stage markets. Most executive teams aren’t experienced with the impact a brand can have. They frequently think about it as ‘a logo’ and tend to compare their business’ brand to the largest brands they have a relationship with. Their comparables have an entirely different set of challenges than an early stage brand.
We know an early stage company needs to find brand-market fit just as it needs to find product-market fit. In the case of brand building, “being right” means finding brand-market fit and that includes building a visual and semantic brand system that can scale and provide competitive advantage to the business it represents. Equally as important, company executives need to love it, and attach to it.
We needed scale
We felt a key to achieving a superior Thinktiv user experience and increasing win-rate in market would be to rebuild our brand practice to generate 10x the ideas, 10x as fast. So, we decided to make crowd sourcing a strategic pillar of our thinking. We wanted every person at Thinktiv to put his or her best ideas forward for every brand we needed to build. There are ~12 members of our design team and we wanted each to be able to invest in their own creative process to produce 3-5 explorations. This meant we could create ~50 brand concepts we could evaluate for each company. That’s a lot of alternatives to consider, so we needed to come up with a methodology for reducing and refining the set in short order.
We needed quantifiably better answers
We invented and optimized a scoring scheme and married it with a democratic process for assigning scores to brand explorations. Everyone participates in the scoring process. We decided to make both the brand exploration and quantitative voting processes anonymous in order level the playing field amongst all team members. We also introduced directed discussion and refinement cycles to get from 50 alternatives to 3-5 ‘winners’ we felt would be important and memorable in market and that our companies would love.
We needed much deeper market awareness
In order to execute the strategy, we needed to seed our new process with guidelines for each market we’re trying to win. These guidelines include maps of the competitive landscape, financing ecosystem, and critical competitive product capabilities and brands. The guidelines also include some suggestive messaging strategies we could use in market and details about the end consumers. There’s also subjective and emotional content we capture from our customers that acts as influence (customers have to love what we build). This guideline ended up being about a 15-page PPT template we create early in our commercial discussions. The best part about the creation of this guideline is that it requires the cross-disciplinary skill sets we pride ourselves on blending. The Thinktiv team working on finance strategy must contribute, our product development team must contribute, the program management team must contribute and of course, the design team as well. Whenever we find strategic deliverables that necessitate our cross-functional team, we know we’re at an advantage.
We needed new leadership
The final piece of the recipe turned out to be a conductor for our new train. It’s a role at Thinktiv that can be staffed on a project-by-project basis utilizing the entirety of our cross-disciplinary team. We haven’t tried it yet, but I bet one of our technical team members could run the brand venture acceleration process. The responsibilities of the role include the assembly of the guideline deck and the overall administration of the process for a particular initiative.
We’re about 8 months into our venture acceleration process for brand. The results are fantastic. For a given project, we can create 50 brands in three days and refine to 3-5 ‘winners’ in under a week. Here are a couple examples of brands built using our new processes (note: some of these examples also benefit from product processes that have been similarly reinvented).
Dozens of people can contribute to this and it scales beautifully. We don’t save a significant amount of time from an overall workload perspective. However, we’ve drastically increased our time-to-market velocity and we’re coming up with even better answers because we’re utilizing a lot more intellectual horsepower per unit of work. Critically, every person on our team is getting exposure to our full portfolio of companies. I believe this is tremendously beneficial to their long-term careers and it’s beneficial to our customers that reap the benefits of all the exposure.
Brand creation is just one of large handful of processes we utilize to create competitive advantage for our customers. Now that we see the results of using our venture acceleration framework, we realize they’re all broken, to a degree.
We’re about half way through the quest to completely disrupt and rebuild our own demand generation, design, product, capitalization, and development processes. It’s somewhat painful to consciously regress on several critical metrics in order to achieve a better outcome in the long run. Within Thinktiv, I’m the farthest away from the processes on a daily basis, but it allows me to see how much more effective we’ve become.
More importantly, a business built on the backs of premiere design talent finally has a great user experience.