If you’re like many marketers, you may not have given the Facebook relevance score much attention.
It might be tempting not to. After all, if your ads are converting and you’re happy with the numbers, then does relevance score really matter? You’d better believe it. Keeping reading to find out why.
Facebook Must Serve Two Masters
Like an aging rock band that must keeping nurturing its fan base if it wants to keep selling $275 concert tickets, Facebook must keep its users happy if it wants to keep them around. And what’s a sure-fire way to turn away people in droves? Other than producing crappy albums, it’s too much advertising. Especially if those ads are seen as unrelated or annoying.
Secondly, Facebook must also serve its dark (but wealthy) overlord: the advertising industry that provides it with over $20 billion of revenue each year. (By the way, I just realized that I’m part of the advertising industry, so does that make me a dark overlord? I sure hope so.) As advertisers, we want as much ad inventory as we can get our hands on.
Does that put advertisers at odds with Facebook users? Maybe not.
On the surface, it might seem that Facebook users want absolutely no ads, while Facebook advertisers want all the ads. But neither statement is really true.
As a Facebook user, you do need to see some advertisements, unless you want to start paying for access. Which you’re not going to, you cheap bastard. And since Facebook stated years ago that its platform will always be free to use, that’s unlikely to be an option anyway.
Now, as an advertiser, do you want your ads to be shown to fewer people? Or pay more than necessary? Of course not. In a perfect world, your ads would be shown at the top of the News Feed, where they’d receive a 100% click-through-rate and a cost per conversion of just pennies. Sure.
With either too many or two few ads, the Facebook ad ecosystem dies.
How Many Facebook Ads Are Users Willing To See? It Depends
If I were in charge of Facebook’s ad platform, a big part of my job would be maximizing Facebook’s sustainable inventory of ads. How many ads is Facebook serving today? It’s easy to find out. If the average cost of advertising on Facebook is $7 CPM, and Facebook generates $20 billion in ad revenue, then they have about 2.8 trillion ad impressions to serve each year. At 1.5 billion users, that’s about 5 ads per person/day.
Let’s pretend that Facebook wanted to increase the number of ads per person/day from 5 to 5.5. Let’s look at a few options to see if any would work:
Show more ads.Nope. This would worsen the user experience and may cause people to spend less time on the site. This might actually reduce ad inventory. After all, if people aren’t visiting Facebook in the first place you can’t show them an ad.
Change placement to make ads less prominent.Wrong again. Facebook would have to reduce CPM for their ads, as advertisers wouldn’t be willing to pay as much for a less prominent placement.
Show ads that are more relevant.Bingo! If you’re only seeing ads that are tailored to your interests, you’d be willing to put up with more of them. And that’s exactly what the Facebook relevance score is for: to encourage advertisers to show ads that are less annoying more valuable to its users.
Facebook Relevance Score Helps Advertisers And Users
Ultimately, the Facebook relevance score helps get advertisers get better results from fewer ads. If your advertisements are being shown to the right audience, you shouldn’t need to generate as many impressions to get the same result.
And it gives users a better experience by encouraging advertisers to show them ads that relate to their likes and interests.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Facebook rewards and punishes advertisers based on the relevance score of their ads. After all, if they were able to increase ad inventory from 5 to 5.5 per user per day (without sacrificing CPM), that could potentially add $2 billion of advertising revenue to Facebook’s pockets each year. Not bad.
That may be part of why, according to a recent report by AdAge, the number of ad impressions Facebook served increased by 29% from 2014 to 2015.
Improving Your Facebook Relevance Score
Hopefully you’re now convinced that you need to pay attention to improving your Facebook relevance score. However, just because you care about hitting a high relevance score doesn’t make it easy. In fact, I’ve often found it pretty tough.
I’ll cover some tips on improving your relevance score in a future post, but in the meantime, if you’ve cracked the code on consistently getting a high Facebook relevance score, and I’d love to hear how you do it. Leave your advice in the comments below.
When I was a kid, there was a sure-fire way of getting Super Mario Bros. to work on NES when the game wouldn’t load: take out the cartridge, blow into the end with all the electronic bits, and retry. Nine times out of ten you’d be back in business. Unfortunately, Facebook ads are often just as finicky. Except that blowing on your computer screen won’t get you very far. That’s why I wrote this guide: to give you a 14-step guide for when your Facebook ads are not working. Because nothing is more frustrating than seeing your Facebook ads not working.
Tip #1: Double Check Everything
Remember when you called your Internet provider because you couldn’t get House of Cards to play on Netflix? And they told you to first check if your cable modem was plugged in? This is that step. Except it’s more like piloting the Apollo space capsule: there are a thousand switches to check, and if you bump the wrong one, bad things happen.
If you’ve made any of the mistakes below, you won’t be the first person:
Used the wrong URL for you ad’s target destination
Forgot to add a your Facebook tracking pixel to your landing pages
Didn’t set the right objective for Facebook to optimize on
Left a campaign, ad set, or ad set to “OFF“
Sent traffic to a landing page you haven’t published
Used an expired credit card to pay for your ads
Hit a budget limit on our account or a campaign
Pre-pay for a full tank of gas at $5.63/gallon when renting your Kia Forte from Hertz
Check these first before diving into the more difficult fixes below.
Tip #2: Pick The Right Objective
Right now, Facebook offers fifteen campaign objectives to choose from. That makes things complicated. Heck, ordering from McDonalds feels like taking a multiple-choice test from a sadistic 3rd-grade teacher, and they only have nine Extra Value Meals to pick from.
If you’re unsure of what objective to pick, Clicks To Website is probably your safest best. When you’ve got the basics figured out, consider moving to Website Conversions. This will allow Facebook to send traffic to people it thinks are most likely to take a certain action on your site. Like downloading your latest ebook, The Beginner’s Guide To McDonald’s Extra Value Meals: What To Choose, How To Eat, And Best Places To Get Sick After Consumption.
One word of caution when using Website Conversions…
If you aren’t getting at least five conversions a day, Facebook will consider your campaign unsuccessful. Facebook will then stop running your campaign “to keep you from wasting money.” You won’t find this listed anywhere in Facebook’s help articles, but I can confirm this both from personal experience and conversations with Facebook support.
Tip #3: Check Placement (Don’t Use Audience Network)
Facebook offers four ad placements: Desktop News Feed, Mobile News Feed, Desktop Right Hand, and Audience Network (aka the 5th Circle of Hell).
What is this Audience Network? It’s a smorgasbord of ad placements on external sites and within mobile apps. It also includes ads placed within Facebook’s Instant Articles.
The problem with Facebook Audience Network ads is they offer a very poor user experience, since the ad layouts vary greatly. You also are subject to the “fat finger” problem, where users inadvertently click on an ad when navigating on their phone.
You’d think that Facebook would simply show your ads on the best-performing placements, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, when I wasn’t paying attention, I’ve seen Facebook spend nearly all of my budget on Audience Network.
So to be safe, turn off Audience Network placements. Completely.
Outside of Audience Network, your mileage may vary among the other placements. If you see one that’s underperforming, take a look at how your ads are presented. Maybe your creative doesn’t work well in small sizes. Maybe your headlines are too long for mobile. Whatever the case, either turn off an underperforming placement or revise your copy and creative to make sure it presents well in all formats.
Tip #4: Get The Right Audience
The best ad in the world won’t convert if it’s delivered to the wrong audience. And you’d be surprised at how very similar Facebook audiences can perform quite differently.
Try testing different versions of your target audience, to see which works best. Here’s an example of how to create three different audiences:
Build your first audience using Facebook Likes and Interests. Try to find things that only people in your audience would have an interest in.
Create a based on Facebook’s Behaviors options. Dig deep into the choices Facebook offers. You’ll be surprised at what you find.
Finally, try a “Lookalike” audience of your existing customers or leads.
Next, take a look at the audience size relative to your budget. You may have created the “perfect” audience. But if it’s made up of only 35,000 people and your budget is $500/day, you’ll wear out that audience in just a few days.
Tip #5 Check Your Relevance Score
Creating a good user experience is a big focus for Facebook. That means they don’t want ads that are spammy, annoying, or well, irrelevant.
That’s why you need to pay close attention to Facebook’s Relevance Score. A high relevance score of say, and 8 or 9, means you’re doing it right. A low score means your audience and your message are never, ever getting past a first date. 5 or 6 is about middle ground.
Remember that Facebook Relevance Scores can change over time. If you’ve found a winner – great! Just keep an eye on it – if relevance declines, it may be time to shut things off and move on to a new ad.
Tip #6: Don’t Compete Against Yourself
Seriously, this is a thing you can actually do with Facebook ads.
It happens when you have more than one campaign targeting the same audience. When that occurs, Facebook gets… well, confused. And when Facebook gets confused, it will either stop delivering your ads or it will charge you more than it should. Either scenario is bad.
Thankfully, Facebook has a Compare Audience Overlap feature. Just select two or more audiences and you can see how distinct they are. As a rule of thumb, anything with more than a 50% overlap is probably going to cause you problems. If the overlap is between 25-50%, you’re still probably OK, as long as the audience size is large enough.
Tip #7: Be Patient
Here’s the real challenge with Facebook ads: they don’t work right away. Here’s an example:
I recently set up a campaign for website conversions. I was willing to pay up to $20 per conversion, a number I’d consistently hit before.
But did my first conversion magically come through once I had spent $20? Nope. How about $50? $75? Keep going. The first conversion didn’t happen until I had spent nearly $100. But a short while later, I got my second, bringing the average cost per conversion down to about $80. A third brought the average down again, to about $60. And so on.
Once I gave Facebook some time to optimize, everything fell in order, and I got plenty conversions well under my target. #epicwin
The lesson: don’t make changes until you’ve given Facebook plenty of time to optimize.
Tip #8: Evaluate Your Landing Pages
Sometimes your ads are just fine, but your landing pages are sucking you dry. How do you know? If you answer “No“ to any questions below, you still need to work on your ads. All “Yes” responses and you can safely move on to your landing pages:
Is your Cost PerClick (Link) healthy? Don’t get confused by regular ol’ Cost Per Click, as that includes any click on your ad, not just those that go to your landing page.
Is your Click-Through Rate (Link) above 0.5%? That’s just rough target, but if you’re seeing numbers below this, you probably need to make some changes to your ads or your audience.
Is Frequency below 5?Frequency is the number of times people have seen your ad. If your audience has seen your ad at least five times already and they still haven’t responded, they’re not about to start now.
Is your your Relevance Score a 5 or above? Anything less and Facebook thinks that your ads are not very pertinent to your audience.
Do you have enough data? Don’t assume thing aren’t working if you only have a few clicks or a few hundred impressions.
If you don’t know what’s important to your audience, good luck getting them to click anything. Here’s the good news: if you aren’t sure which of your product’s benefits will resonate, you can test. Heres how:
With this vivid picture of Greg in mind, identify 5-6 benefits your product can provide that will help him. Does he want to save money? Sleep better? Collect every Star Wars action figure ever produced?
Create an ad for each benefit, using unique copy and creative.
Test all of these ads together – the winner should tell you what benefit resonates best with Greg.
To optimize further, continue making new variations centered around that winning benefit.
Tip #10: Say Exactly What You Want To Communicate
Copy is one of those things that everyone can write, but few can write well. Your word choice can make a tremendous difference in how people respond to your ad. Here are three questions to evaluate the quality of your copy:
Is it clear? Choose clarity over cleverness, and succinctness over length.
Are you triggering the right emotions? Whether you want the reader to feel curious, excited, anxious, or whatever else, pick words that match that emotion.
Does the reader know what to expect next? Make sure your copy clearly states what the reader should do (click, download, etc). and what she can expect once she takes that action.
Did you just stay up all night making 67 variations of your ads to test? Hold on there, hombre. Running all those ads at once won’t help you.
Like a nervous first-year high school basketball coach picking his starting lineup from players he knows nothing about, Facebook can’t optimize your ads until it knows which of them are the best performers.
And if you have too many ads, it will take Facebook a long time to figure that out. Or worse, Facebook will pick a “winner” before it’s given all your ads a fair shot, leaving a potentially great ad stuck in the dust bin.
You run into a different, but equally bad, problem with two few ads.
Let’s say that for every 100 ads you create, 30 are solid, and 70 are duds. Nothing wrong with that. But if you only test a few ads, you’re not giving yourself a good chance of finding a solid performer.
To avoid both problems, shoot for 5-6 ads within each ad set.
Tip #12: Get (The Right) Creative
Developing the right creative is often the scariest part for many marketers. It’s the part where we have to rely on an actual artist to develop art, something most of us can only pretend to know much about. That, or rely on some crummy stock photography. Not even your mom would be proud of you then.
Here’s the good news: developing creative isn’t that much different than developing copy. Identify who you’re targeting, the message you’re trying to convey, and any emotions you want to trigger. Share these with your designer. Ask him to copy up a few concepts to see if you’re both speaking the same language. If one of those looks good, create 3-5 final variations that you can test.
Don’t have a designer on hand or the budget for a freelancer? Try a free tool like Canva or use a service like Fiverr to hire one for a little as five dollars. Exchange rates are your friend when there are skilled Photoshop ninjas in Romania. Just make sure you specific exactly what you want designed.
Tip #13: Try Rebooting
Sometimes Facebook just needs a good kick in the pants. With a steel-toed boot. If you’ve made a bunch of changes to your campaign and nothing seems to be working, then clone your campaign, burn the old one to the ground, and start over.
If this sounds stupid, it’s be because it is. Rebooting your campaigns should not be a viable solution to getting your ads to perform, but it is. It’s as though Facebook’s ad delivery algorithm sometimes turns into a bipolar robot who huffs glue when you’re not looking. Once brain damage sets in, there’s no turning back. The only way to fix things is to toss your campaign in the incinerator and begin anew.
I hate trying this technique because it’s so blunt and unscientific, but sometimes it’s exactly what needs to be done.
Tip #14: Be Human
This is the least concrete but most important concept. Ads that are are pushy, gimmicky, or disrespectful won’t get results. Even if they do, do you really want to be that type of marketer?
If you aren’t sure how your ads will be perceived, show them to a friend, your mom, your boyfriend… anyone who’s a reasonable human being. Ask them how the ads make them feel. For bonus points: tell your friend that the ads were created by someone else. You’ll get much more objective feedback.
If your ads consistently get negative feedback from others, keep working at it. No one got great overnight!
Facebook Ads Not Working? All You Really Need To Know Are These 5 Points
Hopefully points above give you some new ways of getting your Facebook ads working again. But if it all seems like to much, remember that there are only five things you need to be successful with Facebook ads:
Understand the mechanics of the ad platform
Offer something of value
Respect the user
Have the persistence to keep going until you get things right
Oh, and read this article when you need a reminder.
Have other advice for getting your Facebook ads to perform? Share what you’ve learned in the comments!
Here’s a dead-simple way to plan content with Trello.
Caveat: this post will not teach you how to be a social media “ninja”, “guru”, or “rockstar”. If you aspire to use one of those terms to describe yourself, or already do, seek professional help. Or just quit the internet.
Ok. On to the post…
Managing your company’s social media presence can be a mess if you’re not intentional about it. It’s like that guy who’s sat on the couch all year and decides that on January 1, he’s going to go to the gym “like all the time.” Week one, he’s there every day. Week two… well, you know what happens. Without a solid plan that you can stick to, your social media content won’t be consistent or effective.
That’s why I’m going to show you how to plan a full month’s worth of content in 30 minutes or less.
For the sake of simplicity, this post will focus just on Facebook. However, the methodology can be used for any content calendar, and even for multiple social networks if you’re creative. Here’s how it works:
1. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish. Why do you even have a social media presence in the first place? Do you want to keep customers talking about your brand? Announce new products? Set the tone for your brand’s voice? Make a list of key objectives. Keep it short, not more than three or four. Just like the guy planning to hit Gold’s Gym every day, not knowing why you’re doing something is a sure path to quitting. Here’s an example:
Keep customers informed of new product features
Foster engagement by highlighting outstanding customers
Reinforce our values through human-interest and humorous content
Improve company image vignettes of employees
2. Identify the type of content that will best serve each of those objectives. Example:
Keep customers informed… via events announcements and company news (Update)
Foster engagement… by highlighting outstanding customers (Community)
Reinforce our values… through human-interest and humorous content (Voice)
Improve company image… by featuring profiles of employees (Personality)
3. Prioritize your categories. Don’t just say, “they’re all important!”; prioritizing will help you decide how much content is devoted to each. Try this: give yourself 10 “points” to hand out. Give more points to the most important objectives, and fewer to secondary ones. So much math!!
4. Calculate your output capacity. How many posts per month can you consistently commit to? Don’t bite off more than you can chew and burn out after a month. At our company, we are planning to ramp up our volume to about 20 posts a month. That’s on the aggressive side, but we generate a lot of growth through Facebook and our followers have been very engaged with our content. Having videos with lots of gratuitous explosions always helps.
5. Do some math. With you ideal volume in hand, it’s time to match that against the priorities you outlined earlier. Apply the formula below to
Number of posts/month = (points assigned to category / total points) x total posts/month
For our first category, Updates, the formula would look like this:
(3 points / 10 total points) x 20 posts/month = 6 Update posts per month
Easy! You didn’t even need a calculator. Right? Right????….. Don’t worry I won’t tell your 4th grade math teacher. Just repeat for the remaining categories and you’ll have a baseline plan for how many posts of each type to publish each month. Here’s what you’d end up with for all four categories:
Update – 6 posts/month
Community – 6 posts/month
Voice – 4 posts/month
Personality – 4 posts/month
6. Take things over to Trello. We use a 4-step workflow to manage content throughout the month. Every piece of content starts out in a Planned list, and moves through the following steps:
Being worked on
You may need fewer or more depending on the structure of your team. We have multiple content contributors, but only a couple content approvers, so this process helps us hand off content to the right people.
Now… create a Trello card in the Planned for each post you outlined above. The result will look something like this. Look at all those beautiful posts just waiting to be written. So many Likes and Shares lie ahead:
7. Assign owners. Whether you have one person or a team of ten managing content, make sure that every single card has an owner. This is the person who will make sure that a piece of content is drafted, edited, and published on time, and by the right people. Give your team the gift of clear ownership and it will greatly streamline your process. Don’t assign owners and watch you best intentions disintegrate into pure and unrelenting madness. Your Facebook fans deserver better, don’t they?
8. Set due dates. With you content list established, it’s time to figure out what to post when. Trello gives you a great calendar view, which makes it super-simple to get a bird’s eye view of the month. We use also labels to designate content categories, making it easy to see what type of content will go out when. Here’s a possible result that will satisfy any obsessive compulsive disorder sufferer, with it’s neatly-spaced scheduling.
9. Get writing. You have all your work cut out for you for the month. No more planning, go write!
At the end of the month, sit down with your content team and examine the results. Which types of posts performed the best? Were there days of the week when you saw better results? Was your team able to handle the load?
You’ll want to make some tweaks to make next month even more effective. Now you’ve established a baseline, though, your process will be much more effective and well-informed.
Bonus round: You can download a free content planning template in Trello here. Enjoy!
Choosing a CRM is a lot like dating: you need some experience to know what you’re looking for, it takes a while to find out if you’ve made the right choice, and if you decide to switch to another option, it’s generally a pain in the ass.
We recently went through the CRM selection process at my company, and we ended up with a great choice. I wanted to share the steps we went through, to hopefully save you some pain in your own journey.
We originally used Hubspot as an all-in-one marketing/sales platform. We tried to use it as a CRM as well, but it’s not well suited for that. As our sales volume started to increase, and we quickly needed a better solution to help us manage leads and deal discussions. After an afternoon spent Googling every CRM search string we could think of, we soon realized that there were hundreds of choices. Far too many, in fact. Suffocating under the sheer variety of options, we decided to take a step back…
Assessing Your Needs
We took a break and tried to honestly assess what we really needed from a CRM. Just like your buddy’s girlfriend you can’t stand to be around, some CRMs will be a poor fit because they’re tailored for a different type of user. But since you can’t afford to date a dozen CRMs before you marry one, you have to figure out what you want first.
Here are a few questions that will help you find out:
How complex is your sales process? Perhaps you sign leads up after a phone call or two. Or maybe it’s a months-long conversation with several people. You won’t need every feature under the sun if you just need a fancy list to keep track of who needs to be called.
Who will be using the CRM? Is your team really tech savvy, and comfortable setting up a lot of configuration? Or will they refuse to touch something unless it has a beginner-friendly interface?
How many leads do you manage at once? How similar are they? If you’re selling the same thing to every lead, you probably have a fairly straightforward process. A CRM that simply helps you track progress will be fine. But if you have multiple products that have unique sales approaches, you’ll want more flexibility to customize.
Where do your sales take place? If you’re out in the field much, then consider CRMs that have mapping features and a strong mobile app (many CRMs don’t).
Do you sell via email, phone, or both? Several CRMs that offer in-app calling, call logging, dedicated telephone numbers, and other features that make it easy to manage calls. Other CRMs offer direct integration into email services such as Gmail and Outlook, which is handy if you want to easily track correspondence.
How long does this CRM need to last? Remember, just because you pick a CRM now doesn’t mean that you’ll use it until the end of time. Yes, it’s a pain to switch, but if you’re a startup, the software you use today isn’t what you’ll be using three years from now.
What other services do you use? Are there email, billing, chat, or other web-based software you use for marketing and sales? Several CRMs offer direct integrations with those platforms, making it a cinch to sync data.
How available is your tech team? Many CRMs can’t fully connect to other services unless you make use of their API. Have a custom website that someone wrote from scratch? You’ll need to make API calls if you want those forms on your website to update your CRM automatically. If this is a concern for you, check out Zapier, which offers direct integrations between many platforms, all without writing code.
How much does it cost? Don’t worry about this one for now. Most CRMs geared at startups will be within a fairly similar price range. Unless you’re on a shoestring budget, focus on finding a tool that works best for you. More expensive isn’t necessarily better.
Review With Your Team
If you’ve talked through these questions together, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what you need out of a CRM. Here’s what we ended up with:
Our sales process typically involves a couple of emails and a phone call or two. However, the time from initial interest to close can take anywhere from one day to one month. We need something that will make it easy to track correspondence and deal stage. Phone integration and mobile apps are must-haves.
Right now, our products have fixed pricing. The sales process is mostly educational and less focused on negotiation. With that in mind, we didn’t need anything really nuanced. Just an easy way to keep track of how many customers are interested and how many we’ve closed.
Our sales team is a smart bunch, but they don’t have a lot of time to learn a funky interface. Finding something that was intuitive is paramount. While our sales are mostly done in-office, knowing where leads are located geographically is really important, as we sell to many local businesses.
Finally, we need a service that will integrate with MailChimp and Gmail. We’ll also need to update our CRM via an API, since we’d have an custom-built website and sign-up portal for our services.
Go through this exercise and get ready to go hunting…
Narrow It Down
There are a couple options for narrowing your choices: use a service such as Capterra or G2 Crowd to filter your options, OR take the easy way by looking at the short list we came up with:
Close.io – great for call tracking and a simple interface
RelateIQ – uses algorithms to help you know where to spend your time
Intercom – offers a single platform for communicating over multiple channels
BaseCRM – solid call/email integration, great UI and mobile app
HighRise – extremely simple, a glorified contact manager
Once you’ve selected three or four candidates, it’s time for a test run. Set up a trial account, import your data, and start to poke around. Before long, you’ll get a sense of how steep the learning curve is and how much customization is involved before you can really make use of it. Make sure you include any mobile apps as part of the trial process.
If you’re still having trouble making a decision, here are a few tips to help:
Submit a support request and see how quickly and thoroughly their team responds.
Check out their documentation. How many resources do they provide to help you along?
Ask one of their sales reps to tell you why you should choose them over another CRM you’re considering. They may point out some features you weren’t aware of. If you want to dig even deeper, ask the sales rep to tell you what the weak points of their CRM are. Every service has a few.
If Salesforce came up on your short list, cross it off. Unless you have a big sales team and a lead who’s already familiar with Salesforce, changes are it will be overkill. By the time you have it set up, you could already have been using a simpler CRM for months.
Visit the company’s blog to see how recently they’ve released new features.
Take a look at Zapier to see what kinds of integrations are offered. Set up a Zap and see if it works.
Make Your Choice
You won’t know whether you’ve made the perfect decision until you’ve committed to a CRM, started using it for real deals, and discovered all its warts. But you won’t be able to try them all for months. And at a startup, sometimes done is better than perfect. So make your decision, move forward, and don’t look back.
For us, we went with BaseCRM. We really liked its intuitive interface, call integration, and mobile apps. It also has a fairly good API, which means that it can grow with us for a while. Reporting tools are solid too. Yes, there are some shortcomings we found with it, but none of them are serious enough to cause us to reconsider. And their support team has been really helpful. So far, so good…
Have you gone through the process of picking a new CRM? If so, I’d love to hear your own thoughts on how to make the process more painless.
The brief straightaway provided a short but much-needed respite from navigating the seemingly endless number of turns I’d been negotiating. But a couple of seconds later, I was going through the same procedure for the 400th time: look for the apex of the turn, brake, downshift, check the mirrors, ease into the curve. I had my line picked out, all was zen, until a second check of my rear view mirror showed me that they were gaining, and fast. A pack of three 911s, all in hard-core, track-specific GT3 spec. I blinked and they were next to me, the BRAPAPAPAPPPP!!! of nearly 1,500 combined HP thundering in my eardrums and passing with just inches to spare. German wolves out on the hunt.
It was just a normal day on the Nurburgring, also known as The Green Hell. But it was my first time there, and the experience felt anything but normal. Considered one of the most challenging and dangerous race tracks in the world, the Nordschleife (North Loop) of the Nurburging features 154 turns, is nearly 13 miles long, and has over 1,000 feet of elevation change. All nestled in the dark green forests of western Germany. It’s not a place for the faint of heart, as the ‘Ring has claimed over 200 lives over the years:
The Ring is an incredibly unforgiving place. With the exception of a handful of bends, there’s no run-off: if you fail to make a bend, you’re going to hit something hard. Worse, most of the bends and crests are blind, so the chances of one accident leading to a second one are also relatively high. – Ben Lovejoy, instructor for 9 years
Even on the afternoon I drove, there had already been 4 accidents that morning. And two more during my own session. Since I managed to both survive and not wreck (not even once!) during the course of six laps, I wanted to share some thoughts that only an adrenaline and danger-soaked afternoon can provide:
Find your limits and push them
They say that it’s better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow. Why? Because driving well within the limits of your car really just isn’t that much fun. You need a bit of tire squeal to make you feel alive. But that doesn’t mean going out with reckless abandon from the first turn. It means that each lap, you push yourself a bit further until you’ve found just how fast you can navigate a bend before your tires start to protest. And you try to drive right at that level. In control, but at the limit. If you don’t find yourself smiling by then, you’re doing it wrong! Work life is the same way. If you’re always taking on projects that are easy and involve no risk, you’re just going to have another boring day at the office. Only by taking on challenges that are outside of your comfort zone are you really going feel alive.
Swallow your pride
With any skill, there is always going to be someone better than you. Driving is no exception. And at 100+ mph, it would be very easy to put your car into the wall by trying to keep up with someone who’s simply a better driver. But that doesn’t mean the temptation isn’t strong. You have two options: get pissed by comparing yourself to faster, more experienced drivers, or have fun by focusing on the continual improvement of your own skills. Outside of a car, it’s equally easy for me to find others with more talent, greater accomplishments, or who are just plain smarter. Dwelling on that would be poison, though. But focusing on how much I’ve improved since last year, last month, last week? Always a positive reinforcement.
Focus on the big picture
The best way to make it quickly and safely around the track is to think of all 154 turns as a series of connected movements, not as bunch of individual curves. More often than not, one turn begins just as another has ended. Your speed, line, and position from the preceding turn have an enormous impact on your ability to take the following one. So if you don’t plan ahead, you’ll find yourself continually unprepared for what comes next. Isn’t life the same way? Many of the decisions you make today will affect the options available to you down the road. Valuing the long-term effects over the short-term consequences is a skill I think most of us which we did better, race car drivers included.
Experts are your friend
If someone’s better at something than you, look at them as an ally, not an enemy. If they’re better, they can teach you. And if you can get taught, you’ll improve much faster. Which is why I hired a 27-year old German race car driver to show me the ropes. On a race course, he’s called an instructor; in business he’d be called a mentor. In either case, someone who can help you avoid mistakes that he’s made in the past is invaluable. Don’t be afraid to find someone like this and learn from them, even if they’re younger than you!
George R.R. Martin’s novel series, A Song of Ice and Fire, (or for you viewers at home, A Game of Thrones) is chock full of interesting characters and situations. So much so, that I felt compelled to write a few posts about the lessons that startups can draw from them.
Let’s start with Tyrion Lanninster, aka The Imp. Caution… spoiler ahead. Tyrion’s never had a lot going for him. A misshapen dwarf who’s been all but disowned by his family, Tyrion’s rarely enjoyed the respect of others. While Tyrion’s immediate family is made up of avarice-driven, power-hungry, and cunning individuals who’ve jockeyed themselves into dominant positions in society, Tyrion spends his days drinking and whoring out of sight.
That changes though, though, when the circumstances of war install Tyrion as Hand of the King. Tyrion is just as surprised as anyone at obtaining the second most powerful position in the kingdom, and he uses the opportunity to earn the respect he’s never had. The task isn’t easy, though: the king himself is Tyrion’s own nephew Joffrey, an immature and cruel boy who despises Tyrion even though he’s the very man he should rely on to help him run the kingdom.
But before long, Tyrion learns how to manipulate Joffrey through a combination of intimidation (“I’ll geld you, I swear it…” he threatens Joffrey once) and distraction (giving Joffrey a fancy crossbow to show off). While short of stature, he’s not short on wit. In the ensuing months, Tyrion finds himself running the affairs of the kingdom while the king is preoccupied playing with his toys.
This is exactly where Tyion needs to be some time later, when the city of King’s Landing is about to be attacked by rivals. While Joffrey should be the one making war plans, he’s too busy having his fiancé beaten and generally being a prick to make meaningful preparations. And as much as Tyrion hates Joffrey, he hates the idea of having the city sacked and his family thrown out of power even more. With the prospect of a loss looming on the horizon, Tyrion switches to full-on “Get Shit Done” mode…
He orders every blacksmith in the city forge a massive chain that will cut invading ships in two. He cajoles the ancient order of pyromancers make 10,000 jars of a hugely volatile substance called wildfire – enough to blow up the entire city of they’re not careful. He burns down the shanties surrounding the city walls to keep them from being used by the enemy as ladders. He has catapults built and sends men out to harass the enemy, all without the knowledge or consent of his incompetent nephew. Though untrained as a soldier, Tyrion even leads a band of soldiers to defend the city gates, while men with twice his size and experience flee to safety.
It’s not not to be impressed by The Imp. He had the gall to deal the ineffectual and narcissistic King (and technically his boss) enough blows to keep him out of the way. He had the foresight to initiate some defensive tactics that others overlooked. And he had the guts to rush into battle despite his physical disadvantages. Without him, King’s Landing may have in fact been overtaken. Doesn’t he sound like someone you’d want on your side?
Thankfully most of us don’t have the disadvantages Tyrion had to deal with: a unsavory physical appearance, a family that’s rejected you you, and a 13-year-old egotistical and insecure boss. Now think of the challenges you’re dealing with at your own startup. Do any of them seem nearly as bad? No?… So what’s keeping you from being like Tyrion and Getting Shit Done?
“Individuals don’t build great companies, teams do,” is a popular saying in the startup community, thanks to Mark Suster. Indeed, of all factors contributing to startup’s success: product/market fit, sufficient funding, competitive barriers, and so on – none are relevant without a good team in place.
But how do you know when you have a good team? The challenge with team building is that there are quantitative ways of assessing its health. You know when you need to raise money by looking at your balance sheet. You know that you’re on track for a product/market fit when customers start giving you money. But how do you know that your team has the right composition?
There’s a useful concept that comes from an unlikely source: the Christian church. I promise that this post won’t be about converting you to one religion or another, but keep an open mind. In his book, “Building a Discipling Culture“, author Mike Breen developed a concept called the Fivefold Ministries. The idea stems from the five core roles that are outlined Ephesians 4:11-16 – apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, and teacher:
11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ… 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.
The concept here is pretty straightforward: each person has been given their own set of talents and abilities. Only by “unifying” these talents together can a group of people establish change. In the case of the Ephesians, it meant building a young church in the face of adversity. In the case of a startup, it means creating a new company in the face of risk and competition.
Let’s look closer at these five roles and see how they apply to startups:
Apostles – Thought leaders and visionaries, apostles are those who break new ground and challenge others’ view of the world. In the New Testament, the Twelve Apostles were those Jesus chose to establish Christianity. Tasked with developing a new religion in the face of very real persecution, the apostles of the early Christian church faced tremendous adversity in their task. Can you guess what the corollary in startups is? It’s the CEO and early founders: those who attempt to forge a new idea into a viable company. While company founders don’t have to face the risk of death in their pursuits (let’s hope!) their role requires a bold attitude and the ability to keep moving forward in the face of skeptics and competitors. While any startup requires it’s share of apostles, this role isn’t sufficient to get a company off the ground, as we’ll see in a moment.
Evangelists – Evangelists make it their purpose to tell others about their beliefs and vision. They don’t necessarily set the vision (that’s up to the apostles), but they diffuse it, multiplying the reach of the apostles. Like apostles, though, evangelists also have to face doubters. They must possess the ability to win others over through intellect, empathy, charisma, and persistence. Evangelists in the early Christian church were responsible for converting others to Christianity. Their counterparts in startups are the salesmen, corporate developers, and marketers, who “convert” new relationships into partners, customers, and investors.
Prophets – This may seem like a stretch for startups, but not when you look deeper at the meaning of the word. It’s Greek root prophetes simply means “inspired preacher or teacher”. In the Biblical context, prophets were inspired by God and cast a vision of what they believed would happen in the future. Relying on perception, intuition, and feeling, prophets are not unlike artists, who challenge our view of the world with their artwork. In the startup sense, prophets can take the form of consultants and advisors, often in the form of futurists. These visionaries look at how industry, technology, culture, politics, and other macro forces are interacting, and they predict what the world will look like in the coming years. While not as focused on implementation as other roles, prophets play an important part in helping startups challenge existing ways of thinking.
Pastor – Pastors are simply those who care for others. They guard, protect, and nurture those in their custody. In the early Christian church, pastors were responsible for caring for young Christian communities that needed steady guidance and encouragement. In a startup, the needs of the young team are not much different. Faced with uncertainty about the future and lacking the cohesiveness that comes from working with others for a long period of time, startup teams need to be nurtured. A startup “pastor” may take the form of a special employee who has the rare talent of bonding people together, or in a more formal role, such as a human resources lead. In any role, pastors are crucial to developing and reinforcing a healthy company culture.
Teachers – anyone who has a desire to know the truth and impart it to others can considered a teacher. Early Christians needed teachers to convey the lessons of Jesus and explain how they could be lived out in daily life. While we tend to think of teachers today as those formally employed as such, teachers in a startup can take many forms. It’s an engineer who helps his team understand a new technology. It’s the manager who makes sure his team understands the priorities of the company. It’s the analyst who looks closely at the way her company’s product is being used and provides insight into opportunities for improvement. And it’s the designer who helps his company adopt a common visual language in its products.
As you’ve read this post, you’ve probably thought of a few people on your team who fit into these roles. Take a few minutes and review everyone who’s a part of your startup. Do you have strong players in each? Is everyone in a role that’s suited to their talents? What areas is your team lacking in talent?
Now consider what a team with solid players in each role would look like. You’d have a rich blend of people who can lead the formation of the company and set its vision (apostles), gain customers and advocates (evangelists), understand the future of your industry and your company’s role in it (prophets), keep employees empowered and happy (pastors), and ensure that the team is working on the right things and has the knowledge to execute (teachers). A pretty strong crew indeed.