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Would you want to work for you?

Apple’s “Think Different” campaign from TBWA\Chiat\Day in Los Angeles ran from 1997 to 2002

THE BIG IDEA

What I write below is going to sound odd coming from a “creative.” (Backstory: I spent a dozen years as a writer, and then a creative director, at some of the world’s best known ad agencies, working on many of the biggest, most liked/loved brands in the world and I have run fate v/ future, a marketing services company that shares a name with this newsletter, for the past 5+ years.)

In the creative department at many ad agencies, “the idea” is sacrosanct. It’s usually called the, quote-unquote, “big idea.” Here’s the best way I can think of to simply describe what that is:

  • a logical and lateral look at a brand or product,

  • usually in the context of a problem and/or a solution,

  • presented in a likeable way

IYKYK

A quick primer on some of the most famous “big ideas” in history:

Volkswagen’s 1960 “Lemon” print ad by agency Doyle Dane Bernbach is widely credited with inventing contemporary creative advertising. That’s because the ad used a lateral twist (as opposed to a literal message), which was a totally novel approach at the time. The ad’s simple, one word headline called Volkswagen’s flagship car a “lemon” (which is old time slang for a dud car). The line was an unusual, attention-grabbing way to make the point that the VW factory employed thousands of inspectors to monitor each stage of production (apparently, 1 out of every 50 cars was pulled off the assembly line for not being good enough). Meaning: the ones that made it to dealerships were the very best, delivered without flaws, to last longer, and require less maintenance too.

Nike’s late 1980s-era “Just Do It” tagline from agency Wieden + Kennedy is —to this day— inextricably linked to the brand. Nike was very much fueled by the company’s co founders, one of whom was a successful college track and field coach who brought an “if you have a body, you’re an athlete” mentality to the then fledgling shoe company. “Just do it” was a simple, three word encapsulation of that ethos, one that proved to be as likeable, as adaptable, and universal as a tagline can be. Proof: the line remains every bit as fresh, powerful, and applicable to anyone and anything Nike touches some 3-1/2 decades on.

Apple’s 1997-2002 “Think Different” campaign from TBWA\Chiat\Day was launched when the firm was on the verge of bankruptcy (unbelievable as that may seem today). “Think Different” is based in an irrefutable truth about the product: both the hardware and the software of Apple’s computers are vastly different from the more popular Windows-based computers. The strength of the idea comes from seamlessly fusing that product truth to an incredibly compelling societal-level insight: history’s greatest achievements have often been at the hands of people who “thought different.” It seems simple in retrospect. It’s not. There’s a lot packed into that incredibly elegant, two word thought that is based in the brand, based in truth, and based in human desire. Today, Apple is regularly at the top of the list of the world’s most valuable firms.

BUT. THAT’S ADVERTISING

In business overall, novel ideas take a backseat to superior execution.

Nike did not invent the concept of jogging (though they did ignite its popularity in America), nor were they the first ones to develop basketball shoes.

Apple was not the first-ever company to come up with visual/graphical UI —and the company did not come up with the idea of a mouse to control it either.

Facebook was not the world’s first social network.

Google didn’t invent the search engine.

But what all of these firms did do is execute brilliantly, and iterate off the back of their success.

Sidebar: All four companies are obviously world-beating innovation powerhouses. But Meta’s reputation often gets overshadowed by all the nonsense floating around Facebook and Instagram. What the firm doesn’t get enough credit for are initiatives like React, a free and open-source front-end JavaScript library for building user interfaces based on components, or the machine learning/AI systems that drove it’s incredible advertising business for years and years before ChatGPT burst onto the scene. It is one of the most innovative companies of the past 20 years, in addition to being one of the most successful. OK, sidebar over.

IDEA v/ EXECUTION

I think about this idea v/ execution tension a lot, actually. In my day job running fate v/ future, I work with a lot of early stage founders who are writing pitch decks, or working through things like their ideal marketing approach and budget, or their brand/go to market strategies.

It’s all very top of mind for me right now, especially as my own firm runs through its own 2024 strategy, all of which is why I was intrigued by this little nugget I found in Houck's Newsletter, a tactical email offering startup advice “from an a16z-backed founder.”

Here’s Michael Houck, writing about and then quoting Sam Altman, CEO of ChatGPT parent company OpenAI:

"On Saturday I wrote about how well Sam handled the OpenAI crisis. It was a masterclass in controlling the narrative that so many founders can learn from.

Sam’s seen many founders through the years after leading Y Combinator and founding Hydrazine, among his other projects. Here’s his list of traits that founders should have if they want to dominate an industry:

'The main question I ask myself when I meet a founder is if I'd work for that person. The second question I ask myself if I can imagine them taking over their industry.

I look for founders who are scrappy and formidable at the same time (a rarer combination than it sounds); mission oriented, obsessed with their companies, relentless, and determined; extremely smart (necessary, but certainly not sufficient); decisive, fast-moving, and willful; courageous, high-conviction, and willing to be misunderstood; strong communicators and infectious evangelists; and capable of being tough and ambitious.'

What I find interesting is what he didn’t say.

He didn’t say he looks for second time founders, or technical co-founders, or founders who live in a specific city (though he has said that you should be willing to move), or are going after a particular market. Just be resilient, mission-oriented, and decisive — if you have that, you’ve got the most of what it takes to be a founder."

OK, WHAT’S THE POINT HERE?

In startupland, ideas tend to come and go with passing trends. In this context, Altman’s words really land.

It’s tempting to think that the “ideal founder” must be technical in some way shape or form, or an accomplished entrepreneur, or from Silicon Valley.

But that’s not what Altman's criteria is. And he knows a thing or two about founders; the firm he headed before OpenAI, Y Combinator, is the world’s most famous startup incubator.

Altman doesn’t look for repeat founders. He doesn’t seem to care about technical prowess.

He doesn’t even mention ideas at all!

What he does look for bears repeating. The main question Altman asks himself is “would I work for that person?”

What an incredibly simple litmus test for a founder. And while the answer obviously depends on a lot of attributes, including the ones (scrappiness, courage, etc.) that Altman mentions, last I checked, you don’t need a degree, or any experience even, for any of them.

In the last issue, I wrote about charisma, and how it actually comes down to a simple combination of warmth x competence.

That point seems salient here as well.

If you are pondering any entrepreneurial journey, it’s not about your idea. It’s about your execution. And the most important thing you can execute?

Be kind of person that people want to work for.

If you are, you're further along on the path to startup success than you might think.

Don’t take my word for it, take Sam Altman’s.

More:

What Sam Altman looks for in founders »»

Steve Jobs introduces “Think Different” »»

Written by Jon Kallus. Thanks for reading.

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