July 10, 2018
Starting a business in some ways can be a lot like raising a child. From the moment you tell the world, “I’m having a baby!” or, “I’m starting a company!,” you have officially opened the floodgates for people to weigh in with their (often unsolicited) advice. And that advice is pretty much always incredibly conflicting – whether you’re a new mom or a new CEO. “Sleep train your baby at 6 weeks old.” “Raise as little money as possible.” “Co-sleeping is the best way to bond with your baby.” “Raise as much money at the highest valuation that you can.”
These are all pieces of advice I’ve received over the years. Some I tried to follow. Some I ignored. Some made sense at certain times, and then didn’t anymore. But there’s one piece of advice I received that has stood the test of time. It was given to me by my friend, mentor, and investor, Clara Shih. We went to Stanford together and both studied engineering. 5 years after we graduated, I was unemployed and Clara had already written a best-selling business book. She went on to become the Founder and CEO of Hearsay Social and joined the Board of Starbucks. Yes, I think it’s safe to say she is officially a baller. So when I met with her in my early days (before even launching GoldieBlox on Kickstarter), I paid very close attention to what she had to say.
She had only one piece of advice for me that I’ll never forget, just 4 simple words:
“Write it all down.”
Of course, I barely followed this advice even though I knew I should. It’s sort of like going to the gym or learning a new language or making baby food from scratch. You know you’ll be glad you did it, but honestly when your limited spare time is confronted with temptations like Game of Thrones or Candy Crush or an extra hour of sleep, it’s pretty hard to devote the time and energy to more admirable activities like writing. However, there have been some times when I did “write it all down” and when I look back and think about it, they were all pretty game-changing for me.
Here are 4 things I’ve learned:
When you “write it all down”, you give the press something to write about.
Ever wonder how to get the press to write about your business? Do their job for them and “write it all down”.
The day GoldieBlox launched on Kickstarter, we had not one, but two(!) exclusive press write-ups in The Atlantic and TechCrunch. Those articles really helped bring attention to the campaign and pretty soon afterward, GoldieBlox went viral. People always ask me which high-powered PR firm we worked with to secure those articles and how much it cost. The truth is, we had no PR firm and no budget. Those articles came about simply because early on, I started a blog about GoldieBlox. I set up a free WordPress website, and every week, my team and I would post something about our experience building the company. On that blog, we shared what we were working on, what we’d learned, and where we needed help.
Now, the blog didn’t become an international sensation or anything like that, nor did we intend it to be. We just enjoyed writing about the exciting adventure we were on and our friends and family loved keeping tabs. What ended up happening; however, was that our friends had friends who had friends who had friends who happened to work at TechCrunch. Friends who happened to work at The Atlantic. Friends in other high places who happened to have opportunities for us.
If we hadn’t started that blog, none of these people would have become so intrigued about GoldieBlox. Unlike a standard “About Us” section on our website, the blog was a real-time, authentic and vulnerable(!) space where not only would we all share what was going on, but we were able to host a conversation with the people who cared enough to read up each week. And by “writing it all down,” we essentially gave the press an “easy button” to write articles about GoldieBlox – the content, the research, the social context, the stats…everything was already there! Billions of media impressions later, GoldieBlox has become a household name…but it all started from just one blog post.
When you “write it all down”, you live life a little fuller.
I’ve found that sharing my experience with the world has often inspired me to go out of my comfort zone and take a few more risks than I might have otherwise. Let me explain.
Before starting GoldieBlox, I was lost in my career. My first job out of college was at a branding agency in Seattle. Even though my job was exciting and I was learning a ton, at the end of the day, there was always a pit in my stomach that I wasn’t contributing to the world in any meaningful way. Then, I had what I like to call my “quarter life crisis”, where I quit my job, packed my bags, and moved to rural India, where I spent 6 months volunteering for a grassroots NGO. I figured if I wanted to make a change in my life, why not try something 180 degrees different from what I was doing before?
Moving to India by myself and living in a rural village (with no toilet paper!) truly tested me in ways I’d never been tested before. One of the biggest culture shocks I faced early on was the lack of entertainment – something I’d been so accustomed to in my prior life. There were no movie theaters. The internet connectivity was so slow, streaming any of my favorite shows was a lost cause. And local TV was all in Hindi or Oriya, and I couldn’t understand anything. So to keep myself entertained, I decided to write a blog about my experience there.
Each week, I started writing about my my life in India as a foreigner. Honestly, I didn’t expect anyone would really read or care much about it, I was just trying to keep myself busy. But sure enough, I started posting, and my friends and family back home began liking, commenting and following my blog religiously. All of a sudden, I didn’t feel so alone anymore! My friends and family wanted to live vicariously through me, and started demanding even more frequent posts, and I was determined to deliver!
My experience in India was heavily shaped by the fact I was blogging about it. I was constantly looking for new material to keep my readers interested and as a result, I started to say “yes” to things I would have never dreamed of doing under normal circumstances.
For example, I was visiting a very remote village one day, and the tribal leaders invited me to have a ceremonial drink. The drink they were referring to was an alcoholic fermented tree sap that looked like a terrifying concoction of moldy green foam with scary little things floating in it that were probably bugs.
Now normally, I wouldn’t touch this drink with a 10 foot pole, obsessing about all of the potential health risks associated like amoebic dysentery or, you know, death. I would’ve just politely declined, hopped into a rickshaw and gone on my merry way.
But I knew my blog readers would have been so disappointed that I’d let these villagers down! So what did I do? I took a sip. Believe it or not, it was delicious. I guzzled the whole thing. Everyone was so excited, an entire dance party ensued and I made friendships I would never have made otherwise.
I think the same thing can be said about business. When you “write it all down”, whether it’s with the outside world, your friends and family, or your employees, you give yourself a little more accountability and as a result, perhaps push yourself a little harder to try new things.
Oh, and In case you’re wondering, I did, in fact, get amoebic dysentery…but it wasn’t from that green drink. It happened weeks later from drinking filtered water at a 4-star hotel. Go figure.
When you “write it all down”, you learn from your mistakes.
We all have a tendency to selectively remember all the “good” things from the past and block out the “bad”. But when you “write it all down”, you force yourself to confront things you may prefer to ignore, and when you do, nothing can compete with the knowledge you gain.
A couple years ago, I was approached by David Dodson, a Stanford professor, about working together to create a case study about GoldieBlox for the Stanford Graduate School of Business. My initial reaction was, “No way! I don’t have time for this!” But David was pretty persistent, and I had a soft spot to give back to my alma mater. So I agreed.
In the weeks and months that followed, we worked together to capture what was going on at the company during late 2013 through early 2014. This was an insane 4-month period where we had just raised our Series A financing, we had hired our first executives, we had won a free Super Bowl commercial and we were in a very high-profile legal battle. To be honest, it was a complete blur.
But David, our case writer, Matt, and I worked together to “write it all down” and as a result, I forced myself to relive the past, pull up old emails I’d written, and reach out to folks to ask them how they remembered what had happened. The process of pulling together this case study was incredibly enlightening to me.
As it turns out, once I took the time to really reflect on the past, I couldn’t believe some of the mistakes I’d made back then as a young, first-time CEO! In fact, I would have entirely blocked them out of my memory had I not taken the time to really dig in and understand them.
And now, every few months, I get to go back to Stanford and teach students about this period of time at GoldieBlox and hear their thoughts on what I did well and how I could have done better. I can’t tell you what a kick I get from doing this. Literally every time I go in, I learn something new about myself and I reflect on the current state of the business, and how to avoid past mistakes and break bad habits. This process of reflection, while admittedly time consuming, was worth every moment because it helps me make better decisions for GoldieBlox every day.
When you “write it all down”, you become a better leader.
The key to effective leadership? Clear, transparent and regular communication. Period. This took me a long time to learn and frankly, I’m still learning it. But one of the things I’ve heard pretty consistently from the top executives I admire the most? They “write it all down” and share their thoughts with their teams on a regular basis.
It’s no coincidence that Sarah Friar, the CFO of Square, Yancey Strickler, the co-founder and former CEO of Kickstarter, and Brian Chesky, co-founder of Airbnb, all told me they take a few hours each week to compose their thoughts, write them down, and share them with their teams.
I’ve often made the mistake of assuming everyone is picturing what I’m picturing in their heads. The truth is, no one is a mind reader! Additionally, many folks on your teams don’t have the benefit of receiving all the same information you do, which makes it impossible for them to keep up. When you “write it all down”, you force yourself to really reflect on what’s going on, share that thinking and open a dialogue that your entire team can participate in. And somehow, writing it (versus just saying it out loud) makes it stick more and keeps everyone on the same page.
Sure, it takes time. Especially for someone like me who may be the slowest writer on the planet! But think of all the time you end up saving because your entire team knows what’s going on. And when they’re more aware, they’re more effective, which makes YOU more effective.
I may be a bit biased, but I’m pretty sure female engineers like Clara Shih just might be the smartest people in the world and as you can see, her advice really struck a chord with me. I wish I could say I’ve followed it all these years but the truth is, it’s never too late. In writing this article, I’m taking a pledge to be better at this. To “write it all down”, continue sharing my journey with you, and hopefully get to hear your thoughts and ideas. Thanks for reading.