My team and I launched crowdSPRING in early 2008. For the following eight years, despite seeing great growth in our business, we made a mistake many entrepreneurs make: we operated the business as though the competitive, technological, and economic landscape was the same as when we started.
We were wrong.
Markets and businesses always evolve. Xerox, Polaroid, Blockbuster, and other market leaders lost to smaller, more agile competitors because the market leaders assumed that they would dominate forever.
1. Find a way to compete with yourself
In early 2016, I took my senior team offsite for one week to consider the following question: “If we started a new business today to compete with crowdSPRING and our key competitors, how would we build it?”
I asked similar questions at many prior quarterly meetings over the years, but in the past, we paid mostly lip service to the answers, making modest changes to our product and operations.
This time was different.
I told the senior team that this time, we would begin the process of completely overhauling our business the day after we returned from our off-site.
This wasn’t going to be a hypothetical discussion that would result in small tweaks to our business. We would look at everything and then we would execute.
We spent a week focusing on every aspect of our business and product. We scrutinized what worked and what didn’t work, evaluated our team to assess whether we had the right team to accomplish our goal, and questioned every assumption we made about our business and our market.
By the end of the off-site, we built a plan to completely reimagine our business. We called it crowdSPRING 3.0.
We committed to changing every pixel, every line of code, and every word of copy. We looked at pricing, our policies, our communications, marketing, customer service—we left nothing untouched.
We’re a few months away from launching the new product (and relaunching crowdSPRING in the process) and I want to share what we’ve learned (the good and the bad) along the way.
2. Empower each person on your team
When we began the process of reimagining our business, I knew we would need every person on the team to contribute. Our team is small—nine people—but we have a community of over 250,000 clients, designers, and writers, from nearly every country in the world. We could not reimagine our business unless every person on the team was actively involved.
To get everyone involved, I split the process into logical pieces and asked every person on the team to become the CEO of part of the process. Communication was critical—both when we initially started down the road to reimagine our business and throughout the process. This is not surprising; communication is perhaps the most important skill every successful leader must have.
One person was in charge of how we qualified designers and writers to work on crowdSPRING. Another person was in charge of the types of logo design, web design, graphic design, industrial design, naming and writing projects we offered in our legacy product, and whether we would offer the same types of projects in crowdSPRING 3.0. A third person was responsible for looking at our business intelligence tools. Every person on the team was involved.
We deconstructed every part of our business and someone owned the research and analysis to help us reimagine each function. Each person was empowered to research, propose a solution, and oversee implementation.
For example, someone from our customer support team took a critical look at how we qualified designers and writers to work on crowdSPRING. Historically, designers and writers could register with only their email and they could work on any project on crowdSPRING. But we realized, during our off-site, that although our goal was good—to create a level playing field for creatives around the world—we compromised our ability to control quality.
I knew that developing a new registration system would take some time. The person who “owned” this part of our reimagination process strongly advocated that we close registration for designers and writers until we could completely rethink the entire process, and rebuild it.
3. Let people make tough decisions
When you make a person the “CEO” of something, you give them the authority to find the best solution to a problem. Giving people authority means you have to fight the urge to micromanage, even if that’s your typical style of leadership.
This was easy for me to do because I don’t micromanage, but many people worry about ceding authority to someone else. If you trust someone to oversee a critical part of your business, you should trust them to make good decisions. Not only that, when people make great decisions, give them lots of public praise—don’t steal the spotlight.
I didn’t take the proposal to close registration lightly, but after discussing it with the team, we did just that. Registration remained closed for nearly six months while we gathered a waiting list of thousands of new designers and writers who wanted to work on crowdSPRING (we’ve since qualified and processed every single person on that waiting list—an effort that took a lot of time).
After we closed our registration system, the person overseeing how we qualified designer and writers proposed a new registration system, completely reimagining how we registered people for the prior eight years. This new system would require real identification, contact information, and work samples in certain categories of projects (including logo design, web design, and company naming). We wanted to be sure that the designers and writers we admitted to work on crowdSPRING met our minimum standards for quality and trust.
Our customer support team strongly urged us to apply these rules retroactively to all 200,000 creatives on crowdSPRING and we did so, requiring every designer and writer to re-register and re-qualify.
This process helped us to create a much better product but it also had an interesting side-effect. Making every person on the team the CEO of something important empowered each person and collectively, empowered the entire team in ways we had not imagined.
People knew that we were relying on them to do important research, to make important recommendations, and to closely oversee the changes we would implement. They also knew that they had true freedom to make decisions and suggest radical changes in the way we ran our business.
Every person on the team became a leader and this has flattened our organization and has helped us to move faster.
4. Empowering people spurs innovation
Empowering the team by giving each person control over a specific aspect of the business also created an opportunity for people to be creative, without constraints.
During our one week off-site, we committed to questioning everything about our business. This process allowed us to return to our startup roots, where innovation is king.
A company that has been in business for nearly 10 years is hardly a startup. Many processes are already established and it’s more difficult to be agile. That’s why bigger companies look at startups to learn about innovation.
This is precisely why companies that have been in business for years should critically look at their business and consider ways they would compete with themselves.
Some of the ideas developed during our off-site and shortly after were implemented immediately, even before we completely rebuilt our product and business. We launched a resource center for entrepreneurs and small businesses, and started a video series on YouTube focusing on starting and growing your business.
Our one week off-site breathed new life into our drive to be the innovation leader in our space. That’s a position we occupied for the first three to four years after we started the business and we firmly believe we’ll again become a market leader in a few months when we relaunch our business and our product.
5. You’ll make mistakes along the way
I don’t want you to walk away thinking that this reimagination process was 100 percent positive. I made a number of mistakes along the way. If you decide to reimagine your own business, I hope you learn from these mistakes.
Mistake #1: Failing to critically assess every person on our team
I didn’t do a good job assessing our team after we came back from the off-site.
I believed that we had a strong team that could quickly adapt to new technologies. As a result, I didn’t look as critically as I should have at each person on the team, to decide whether they would be a good fit for where our business was heading.
We were going to move in a different direction, both with our product and with the pace of our business. I assumed that everyone could easily adapt and evolve. The most effective employees share certain traits—and I unfortunately ignored a few.
This mistake set us back about three months and created a great deal of friction when we started to rebuild the product. When we finally realized that we would need to make changes, we took a detour and made those changes. I’m very happy with the results but wish I took a more critical look at our team before we started this process.
Mistake #2: Underestimating the software development process
We also underestimated the time it would take us to rebuild the product.
During our off-site, we were so energized by the opportunity to completely rethink our business that we thought we could complete a full rebuild within three to four months.
We were not eating magic mushrooms, but it sure seems like it now. We have a large marketplace, with billions of database objects, hundreds of thousands of customers, designers, and writers, and a complex infrastructure.
We grossly underestimated the complexity of the rebuild and the careful planning that was necessary to get started.
We should have known this would be a problem. Software development is unpredictable and people regularly underestimate how long it would take to build (or rebuild) a product.
When we realized that it would take us longer than we originally anticipated, we had to reset our expectations, accelerate certain projects on the legacy site (which we mostly left untouched because we were building a completely new product), and reexamine our marketing campaigns.
Had we more accurately anticipated the time it would take us to rebuild the product, we would have planned better and would not have needed to take valuable time away from the rebuild process.
Mistake #3: Neglecting to create a “Plan B”
We made another critical mistake when we started the rebuilding process: We didn’t create a “Plan B.”
This was surprising, because I think it’s important to create an alternative plan that you can follow if you first plan fails. After all, whether you’re building software, marketing, or selling, it’s not unusual for your strategy to fall flat or fail. When it does—and this happens often—smart companies already know their next best alternative.
I was so focused on the rebuild process that I never asked the team in the early months of our rebuild and reimagination process to consider what we would do if the rebuild process took considerably longer than three to four months.
As a result, we created strategies and tactics for marketing campaigns we would launch in four months, deferred numerous campaigns and changed others, and otherwise threw a wrench into our marketing plan in 2016. The launch date became a moving target and this meant that we could not effectively execute many of our planned campaigns.
When I realized that the process would take considerably longer than we originally anticipated, I met with my senior team and we discussed what we can do to move forward on our marketing strategies.
After all, it made no sense to hold back our marketing if we had to wait six months or more for the new product to be ready for launch.
We created a three month plan (assuming we would launch in three months) and a six months “Plan B” (what we would do if we couldn’t launch in three months and had to wait six months).
Thinking through each strategy—three months and six months plans—allowed us to more accurately assess our marketing strategies and their timing based on our ability (or inability) to complete and launch the new product.
Had we done this early in the process, we would not have lost important months of marketing time when we were holding many of our campaigns back because we thought our relaunch was imminent.
What’s holding you back?
If you have a newer business not performing to your satisfaction, or an older business that has hit a wall, you too can benefit from asking the question:
“If I started a new business today to compete with my existing business and my key competitors, how would I build it?”
What are you waiting for?