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Post title image: Listen better: notes on building an attentive startup

Listen better: notes on building an attentive startup

In a world of “move fast and break things”, is there space to tastefully craft & make things?

Desk Notes

I’ve been thinking about The Bear this week.

If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s about a chef who leaves the world of fine dining to run his late brother’s restaurant. 

In the finale of season 2, they open a new restaurant, and Richie - the reformed chain-swearing, gun-toting maitre’d - kicks off the pre-service briefing.

And instead of talking about speed, intensity, and performance, he talks about attentiveness. Reading the room. Asking questions. Heightening the senses. And finishing with:

"Now, who remembers what Vasudeva, the ferryman, said to Siddartha on the banks of the Ganges River?" "He whispered, "Listen better”.

In startups we often talk about focus. Whether it’s Jony Ive talking about Steve Jobs, or Frank Slootman’s dictum: Narrow the Focus, Increase the Quality - keeping your eyes on the prize is seen as table stakes.

We talk less, I think, about attentiveness. Perhaps, because it can often be conflated with a lack of speed.

In a world of blitzscaling, taking time to step back, listen, and think, is something that it seems like we can’t afford in a company fighting to earn its place in the world.

I disagree. I think the future belongs to the attentive startup.

Herman Hesse x Taylor SwiftHerman Hesse x Taylor Swift

First, what does it mean to be attentive?

I think kitchens are actually a great place to start. In the world’s best restaurants every detail - every second - counts.

It’s not just true in The Bear, but in reality as well. One of the inspirations for the series (it even gets a brief cameo) is Will Guidara’s book, Unreasonable Hospitality.

In it, Guidara explains how he and Daniel Humm turned Eleven Madison Park into one of the best restaurants in the world.

The tiniest signals, or overheard snippets of conversation, get turned into something that’ll blow the minds of their customers.

A reference to having to leave New York without tasting a hot dog leads to Guidara running to the nearest hot dog stand, and returning it to the restaurant to be plated as the next course.

From the way the tape is cut on the end of the kitchen tape dispenser, to the way the tablecloth hangs off each table, they focus on the details. They sweat the quality. They listen better.

In an attentive organisation, it’s not just about building a more efficient production line, but about focussing on quality and craft. And trusting it’ll deliver results.

As Walt Disney said, people can feel perfection.

Any organisation can be attentive. Back when I was a media lawyer, I’d sometimes be invited to something called conference at one of the UK’s best-known tabloid newspapers.

This was a meeting, twice a day, in which the section editors and senior staff would run through what was going to be in today’s newspaper.

At the time, the editor was someone who, after leaving his previous role as editor of a well-respected broadsheet, decided to train (and work) as a chef instead.

I remember going in for the first time: expecting the noise and chaos that would inevitably come alongside having to cram everything that was happening that day into a single newspaper, ready to go to the printers that evening.

Instead, there was silence. He’d call each page number out and they’d review without making a sound. It was only where he’d ask a question there’d be a response. It never lasted more than a few seconds.

The content was mischievous, combative, and funny. But the process in making it was rigorous, disciplined, and precise. An attentive organisation.

Can confirm it was not ATNCan confirm it was not ATN

And if you look at some of the greatest startups around today - you’ll see they have attentiveness at the core of how they’re built.

Take Linear. They work in a highly unorthodox way - no product managers; no a/b testing; and no metric-based goals. Instead they optimise for quality and taste above all else.

As CEO Karri Sarrinen put it recently:

“[we] were always frustrated or disappointed how rarely we saw quality happening in the companies we worked at. Just on a human level, we shouldn’t spend our time cranking out things that we can’t take pride in.”

As an organisation they’ve taken the principles of craft, focus, and beauty - all hallmarks of attentiveness - and applied them to a startup that no-one could credibly call sluggish. By going slower, they can go faster.

This isn’t also something you need to sacrifice as you scale.

Here’s Patrick Collison on Invest Like the Best yesterday:

"If Stripe is a monstrously successful business but what we make isn't beautiful and Stripe doesn't embody a culture of incredibly exacting craftsmanship, I'll be much less happy. My intuition is that more of Stripe's success than one would think is downstream of the fact that people like beautiful things.”

Both Stripe and Linear have gone beyond talking to users, but instead taken the next step: listening not only to customers, but to themselves, trusting their own tastes and behaviours.

It's not only a different way of doing things, but a different way of thinking about building tech products as well.

I often think about when Steve Jobs was asked what he disliked about Microsoft, he said, their lack of taste.

For Jobs, and others who want to build attentive startups, they have a sense of romanticism about technology. Technology isn't just a functional tool, but instead can be something more.

Rick knowsRick knows

But why should we care? Well not only is taking the time to build beautiful things a good thing in itself, now more than ever, details matter.

In the early days of the internet expectations around product quality were minimal. People - mainly very early adopters - were all too happy to look through products that didn’t sweat the details to get to the gold.

Now we're further along the adoption curve, I'm not sure that’s the case any more. As everything else gets better, users expect more around design, simplicity, and ease of use.

What might have passed for a MVP in 2013, probably won't in 2023.

And so in a world where your product is judged more (even if not quite yet to to the standards of a Michelin Star restaurant), being truly attentive - to your users, your team, and yourself - is now a necessity.

Why? Back to Patrick Collison: “Because what does a beautiful thing tell you? Well, it tells you the person who made it really cared."

It’s time to listen better.

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