Kawasaki on Why Your Startup is Dead if You Can’t Enchant
People & Culture

Kawasaki on Why Your Startup is Dead if You Can’t Enchant

Entrepreneur and investor Guy Kawasaki on the importance of making your product approachable, surprising and delightful.

Apple's had several near-death experiences. As author, investor and now Google advisor Guy Kawasaki puts it, the company must have a guardian angel. And in the mid-1980s, that guardian angel was Aldus PageMaker.

“In the 1980s, we thought we had Macintosh all figured out,” says Kawasaki, who worked on Steve Jobs’ stealth Macintosh task force from 1983 to 1987. “We thought it would be a spreadsheet, database, and word processing machine. We were zero for three. The one bright spot in the entire Macintosh software universe was desktop publishing. Aldus PageMaker invented desktop publishing, and it saved the company.”

Few people know this story, not since the post-iPod era dawned. But it’s a prime example of what Kawasaki has coined the “art of enchantment.” Aldus PageMaker had the ability to enchant customers, so much so that it resuscitated a whole other company — a company that has gone on to make customer enchantment core to its design.

Defined as the ability to put someone under a spell, as if by magic, being enchanting sounds like something you’re either born with or not. But Kawasaki disagrees. In fact, it can be highly tactical, especially when applied to business. He spoke about it at Stanford’s Entrepreneurship Corner, and has even written a book. So, as we enter the holiday season — arguably the season of enchantment — we thought it apt to bring you the tactics that can make or tank your technology, no matter how good it actually is.

Make Them Like You

“Enchantment is necessary,” Kawasaki says. “The more innovative the product or service, the more you need enchantment. In a perfect world, something new and groundbreaking would have the world beating a path to your door, but it doesn’t work like that.”

We’ll get to your product, but the basics of enchantment start with people. Especially if you’re a founder or leading a company, you are the beating heart of the business, and you better be likable. This doesn’t require being nice to everyone, especially if you don’t mean it. That’s a fallacy. Even assholes can be likable if they do three things:

Be genuine. No one likes being lied to. There’s the people who smile at you with just their mouths, and the people who really mean it, and you can see it in their eyes.

Everything about your presentation should signal authenticity and respect. Your body language, the way you dress (to match your audience), even the way you shake hands. All of these things, the makings of a great first impression, matter for the duration of any relationship you start.

“A study from the University of Manchester in the UK actually calculated the perfect handshake,” Kawasaki says. “You need to stand at a comfortable distance, not too close not too far. Your hand should be firm, smooth and dry. Most importantly, you need to maintain eye contact for a second or two. This is the perfect handshake.” That’s how important even granular gestures can be. There are studies funded to measure hand firmness and eye contact because they're indicators of authenticity and enthusiasm.

These attributes are the beginning of likability, but you can like someone and still not trust them. In order to truly enchant, you have to inspire trustworthiness, and that’s no one’s job but yours. When you trust someone first, their trust will follow. But making that leap is your responsibility.

Default to Yes. When you meet people, always be thinking, “How can I help that person?” A lot of people meet someone and immediately think, “How can they help me?” When you default to yes, you’re always open to doing something for someone else. This is the culmination of being genuine and trusting people, and it, more than anything else, can win people over.

“You might be thinking, ‘This could get me in a lot of trouble. If I’m always saying yes, people will make unreasonable asks,’” Kawasaki says. “But in my 30 years of experience, that very seldom happens. Most people are very reasonable. If one isn't, that's someone you shouldn't bother to enchant.”

Enchanting with Great Products

No one sets out to build a product or a company hoping or knowing people will hate it. You want what you create to be embraced. To make this happen, you have to not only consider the qualities that make a product or service a joy to use. It’s also about how you launch it and how you market it after the fact. To cover your bases, Kawasaki puts forth the DICE rule.

  • Depth: “Great products, services, ideas, causes — they all have depth. Lots of features, lots of functionality. Maybe not at first, but it’s part of the plan. Great entrepreneurs anticipate what people will need as they come up the power curve.”
  • Intelligence: You want people to discover your product and say, “Ah, somebody understood my pain better than I have and has articulated it for me better than I ever could.” He gives the example of the MyKeyfunction on the Ford Mustang. The car goes 0 to 60 in 4.4 seconds, but inevitably his son would end up driving it. MyKey lets you program the car’s top speed, enabling concerned parents everywhere to set it at a sane 55 mph. Ford understood this need.
  • Completeness: “Your product is not what people download and install. It’s the documentation, the online support, the string of enhancements to come. That’s the totality of your product, not just the executable code. Great products are designed completely.”
  • Empowerment: “Make people feel more creative, more productive. Give them peace of mind,” Kawasaki says. “You should be able to explain your product and why it’s lovable in three words. It’s a mantra not a mission statement. Nike uses ‘authentic athletic performance.’ Target uses ‘democratized design.’” Developing this kind of sticky tagline for your audience makes your product or service accessible, easy, and tells them how it will extend their capabilities.

So now you have thought through your product — in totality. What’s next? How do you actively enchant when it’s out on the market? You better start thinking about it months before you launch.

Do a pre-mortem, not a post-mortem. The term “post-mortem” has become a buzzword at tech companies, sequestering teams in conference rooms to review what went right, what went wrong, what could be done better. Kawasaki isn’t a fan.

A post-mortem is something you do after something dies to make you feel better. The problem with this: It's too late.

This is especially crucial around launch. If it doesn’t go well, a post-mortem can turn into a bunch of finger-pointing, angst, and anger.

“When you do a pre-mortem, before a product ships, you can ask your team, ‘Let’s pretend that our product, or our company has failed. We failed. Now, what are all the possible reasons we failed?” he says. “Maybe it was lack of distribution, an unsophisticated salesforce, buggy software, unreliable cloud services. Whatever it is, you come up with all these reasons. And then, in an unemotional way, you talk about how you can eliminate each of these reasons. This is a very different conversation. Do a pre-mortem so you never have to do an actual post-mortem."

Once your technology is out in the wild, its success rests largely on marketing. And enchantment should be your marketing team's wheelhouse. Kawasaki has a number of recommendations for ensuring that this is the case, and it starts with a story.

“One of the great legends of Silicon Valley is that eBay was created because Pierre Omidyar’s girlfriend wanted to collect Pez dispensers,” he says. “The truth is he really wanted to create the perfect market where supply and demand would intersect. The Pez dispenser story came later and just took off. I’m not encouraging anyone to lie, but you can see how powerful storytelling is when you launch. No matter what you want to do, tell people why you want to do it. That’s where the good stories come from. Whether it’s bringing personal computers to more people or creating a place where you can upload videos of people dropping Mentos into Diet Cokes.”

Refine and iterate on that story until it’s pitch-perfect. Like your mantra, you want it to be “short, sweet and swallowable.” A lot of technology founders have a hard time distilling what will be compelling for their audience. You have to focus on where people will be impacted most, and make it personal. “Do people care about miles per gallon? Not as much as annual costs saved. Do you talk in terms of gigabytes or number of songs? To you, a 64-gigabyte iPod might sound awesome. But most people care about how many songs or how many movies they can hold in their hand.”

Plant many seeds. “Classic marketing tells you to plant just a few seeds because you know exactly who’s going to embrace your product. And you water and fertilize just those seeds. You focus. But this is completely wrong,” Kawasaki says. “Years ago, you could get away with focusing on just the A-list journalists at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes. You’d suck up to them so they’d sell your product for you to everyone else. And if you couldn’t suck up to them, you’d pay an expensive PR firm to do it for you.”

Now, to reach critical mass with your product — and that’s the goal in this hyper-growth obsessed market — it’s not about top-tier journalists blessing your efforts. “The world has been inverted. Now you succeed because lonelyboy15 embraced your product. And he told his 20 friends who told their 20 friends. This is how the big successes have happened.”

The New York Times didn't see Twitter and Facebook on the first day and say 'Aha! We have seen the future!

“Show me the Times, Businessweek or Fortune article that predicted the success of Twitter or Facebook, or Apple or Yahoo for that matter — any of those success stories. There’s none. So what you need to do is plant many seeds. Put your prototype or your product out there. Cover the earth with it, because you don’t know who your lonelyboy15 will be. You don’t know who that one person will be who will make your product a success.”

Identify with your audience. This tactic can take many forms. Some companies do it by building an ecosystem. Apple is a prime example with innumerable developers, independent conferences, online forums, and volunteer supporters answering queries. All of these people, whether they're employed by Apple or not are working toward its success. There are well over 10,000 iPhone app developers all pulling for the company and identifying with its goals.

You can also meet your customers on a grander scale by selling a dream that you know they share with you. “Steve Jobs didn’t get up on stage and say, ‘This is the iPhone, it’s $188-worth of parts put together by a large company in China.’ He talked about creativity, productivity, coolness, connection, hundreds of thousands of apps. He was selling a dream, not a phone.”

Be responsive. There are a certain number of speed bumps you can remove for your users before launch. You can ditch the annoying CAPTCHA ask. You can eliminate the number of fields they have to fill out to use your service. But no matter what you do, people are bound to be frustrated. Lots of them. “In the world of technology, being engaged means being fast — responding within 24 hours. The more people you can respond to that fast, the more seeds you have planted,” Kawasaki says. He also recommends diversifying the channels that allow you to be responsive. Use Twitter, Facebook, email and more in combination to reach different, overlapping audiences. “This is core to your existence as an enchanter,” he adds. “And you have to do it all the time. It’s core, not context.”

Overcoming Resistance

Enchantment is key to breaking down barriers that can hold your business back. Here, Kawasaki identifies the key elements that create enchantment for people who aren’t as eager to convert. It’s surprising how intentional you can be about them, too.

Social proof. “Back when Apple introduced the iPod, you saw lots of people walking around with these white earbuds. You started to connect that with iPod. You became one of those white earbud wearers. More people saw more white earbuds. More people bought iPods. Apple may not have purposely chosen white to stand out and cause social proof, but that just goes to show you how powerful a choice like that is. Social proof is a voice telling you ‘you’re OK.’” When you understand how powerful a force this can be, you can design your product to optimize for this type of mass adoption.

Enchant the influencers. “A lot of young entrepreneurs think the way to get their product into a family or a corporation is to start at the top — CIO, CEO, CTO, CMO, C-something-O. But I’ll tell you something. The higher you go, the thinner the air,” Kawasaki says. “And the thinner the air, the more difficult it is to support intelligent life. The air is thick and the people are hungry in the middle and at the bottom of organizations. You have to ask yourself, ‘Who is really the influencer?’ I have a nine-year-old daughter, and I will do anything to make her happy. So if you truly wanted to influence me, you’d start by making her happy.”

Make it endure. “The Grateful Dead used to have a completely contrary policy toward ripping off music. They had supporters they called ‘tapers’ who would tape all the songs at their concerts. The band actually created a special section for them with great acoustics so even amateurs could get great sound. This spread their music as far and wide as possible. This is one of the reasons the Grateful Dead has endured so long with such a massive following.” Support the people who want to support you, even in unconventional ways. Especially in unconventional ways. Few things are more enchanting.

Don’t try to buy love. “Money introduces a whole level of complexity. If you are truly enchanting people, you will not have to resort to money,” Kawasaki says. “If you have to pay them, something is already wrong. You make people wonder if they truly believe in you. And you will never know if they do.”

When he was at Garage Technology Ventures, a firm he helped co-found, Kawasaki’s team was approached by a startup self-described as a YouTube killer. When asked why they would win, the founders pointed to their affiliate program. They explained that they would help the people creating videos get a cut of the advertising revenue. But Garage wasn’t convinced. “Let’s face it. The reason people put stuff on YouTube is not for an affiliate fee or rev share. It’s because they want glory, and to share stuff, and to say 10,000 people watched me skateboard. The lesson: Don’t use money.”

Invoke reciprocation. When it comes to being enchanting, there’s a currency much more influential and magnetic than money. It’s social capital. This is also where defaulting to yes in your life and in your business can make a big difference.

“Right after the Civil War, the people of Charleston, South Carolina were using bucket brigades to put out fires. When the people of New York heard about this, they donated money to buy the city a fire truck. Fast forward to 9-11. The people of Charleston raised over half a million dollars to buy a new fire truck for New York. They reciprocated 135 years later.”

Kawasaki loves this story because it demonstrates how essential reciprocation is to enduring enchantment, especially when you know how to leverage it. “When you pay something forward or do someone a favor, if they have social skills they will thank you.”

When someone thanks you, don't just say, 'You’re welcome.' Say: 'I know you would do the same for me.

When you say this, you do two things. You’re telling the person, “You have class. I did something for you, and I know you would do the same for me because you believe in reciprocation.” You’re also very subtly saying, “You owe me.”

Another pro-tip from Kawasaki: “You might think that when someone owes you, you should hesitate on letting them pay you back. You might say, ‘I know you’d do the same for me but you don’t have to.’ The better thing to do is let them pay you back because it relieves their guilt and it solidifies your trust.”

Enchanting Your Way Up or Down

To a certain extent, great companies excel because they contain a lot of enchanting people at all levels. You see this at Facebook and Google, where multiple people are put on stage or in front of the press to explain new products and features. It’s one of the key qualities embodied by product managers, for example, but should probably be true of even more people. To this end, Kawasaki has some tips for how to enchant the people you work for and the people who work for you.

Enchanting your boss is vital. It can determine the opportunities you get, your mobility within a company, and, on a more basic level, your compensation. To make a lasting, positive impression on your manager:

  • Drop everything: “When your boss asks you to do something, drop whatever you’re doing and do it. It’s that simple. That is the most important lesson I have for anyone in the job market. What they ask for might be stupid. It might be sub-optimal. But that’s your point of view. That might not be his or her point of view. Just do it.”
  • Prototype fast: “If your boss gives you a project and says she needs it in a week, come back with a prototype the next day. It shows you’re really on top of things — that you really did drop everything. But a prototype also significantly increases the probability you will do something right. It gives you time to iterate.”
  • Give bad news early: “You should always give people the bad news, especially the people you work for when something is going wrong. If you want to be a world-class enchanter, you not only tell people, you tell them immediately, and you make some suggestions for how to fix the problem.”

Your success also depends on enhancing your reports. If they don’t perform at the top of their game, it will come back to you. The objective should always be to achieve the most productivity while people are still loving their jobs. To hit this sweet spot:

  • MAP it: In which MAP stands for mastery, autonomy and purpose. “Mastery means, if you work for me, you will learn new skills. You will master social media. You will master programming or video editing or writing. I care about what you want to learn, and I am giving you an opportunity to improve yourself. Autonomy empowers people to take action. You make it clear that you will not micromanage anyone. You trust them first. Then there’s the purpose. Whether it’s productivity, creativity, peace of mind, ending pollution. Make sure your reports know they are working for an organization with a higher goal. If you do these three things, you will enchant the people who work for you.”
  • Suck it up: “Never ask people who work for you to do something you would never do yourself. If you’re asking someone to fly to Mumbai in coach, you better be willing to do the same thing and prove it.” A lot of managers think this rule might compromise their authority, but they’re wrong. If anything, it will earn their reports’ respect, Kawasaki says.

With the gift-giving season just revving up, thousands of technology companies are anticipating record traffic, sales, communications, customer service complaints, downtime, overtime, stress, and more. There’s no time of year when being enchanting — both in person and with your product — is more important. We wish you luck.

Click here to watch the original video of Kawasaki's Stanford Entrepreneurship Corner talk.