Keep It Simple

I like this advice from John Lilly, a serial CEO and now a partner at Greylock:

I didn’t understand the role of simplicity and messaging early on. One of the things that happened at one of my start-ups was that I would get bored saying the same thing every day. So I decided to change it up a little bit. But then everybody had a different idea of what I thought because I was mixing it up.

So my big lesson was the importance of a simple message, and saying it the same way over and over. If you’re going to change it, change it in a big way, and make sure everyone knows it’s a change. Otherwise keep it static.

The number one cause of employee unhappiness and unwanted departures is “I don’t understand where we are going.” That is a failure of leadership on the CEO’s part. I agree with John, keep it simple and repeat often and don’t mix up your messages. It is critical, particularly as the organization grows in size.


Comments (Archived):

  1. Seth Godin

    People rarely obfuscate and confuse the story because they’re bored.They do it because they’re afraid.It’s a lot easier to be frightened by a specific promise. Instead, we instinctively sand off the edges and waffle so that when the future arrives, we’ve got a plan for that.It’s a challenge, but we have to be right until we’re wrong, and then switch gears and be right again with the new thing.

    1. Anne Libby

      Yes. And when we need other people to get something done, we have to rise above our own feelings and wants. It’s not about us.

    2. Jake Baker

      Seth – you are remarkably proficient at short and simple but majorly impactful writing! How long do your posts start out? Or even this comment?As I mentioned elsewhere, it goes to the classic: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” Blaise Pascal, I believe, but relatively recently appropriated by Mark Suster to describe his LONG posts vs. Fred’s concise style.

    3. jason wright

      Or, we have to be ‘wrong’ (and be comfortable with everyone telling us that we are wrong) until we show them that we are right. If the message changes then we are not comfortable.

    4. PhilipSugar

      Yes. People hear me say the same thing every day: “don’t write a check you can’t cash”, “we don’t do everything somebody wants us to do but we we say we will do it we do it”, “don’t come to me with a problem come to me with possible solutions”, on and on.People need to hear it literally hundreds of times.

  2. jason wright

    …and so don’t get bored. It’s the first signal of subconscious doubt.

    1. Lawrence Brass

      You don’t get bored if you think you have a mission or a purpose. Some people need to be told, others don’t.

  3. JimHirshfield

    You forgot the second S, stupid. No wait, that’s not what I meant. You’re not stupid. The second S in K.I.S.S. is stupid.

  4. William Mougayar

    Messaging is like the tip of an arrow. It needs to be sharp to penetrate minds.A good vision helps you plow through the future. A bad one helps you plow through the dirt.

    1. JimHirshfield

      You’ve exceeded today’s metaphor quota

    2. Jess Bachman

      “He who plows his fields with vision, have hard time seeing harvest”-Confucious

  5. David C. Baker

    Very good thought, Fred. In that vein, I like to ask employees to tell me how the company they work for makes money, keeping their answer to less than a dozen words.

  6. johnboehmer

    I would argue, and i’m in the exec search biz mind you, the single most important lesson for all Founder/CEOs, stay on message. And alter that message only when absolutely necessary and only when there is significant buy-in from other key stakeholders.

    1. Chris Kenber Business Coach

      Staying on message is indeed key. As is having a mission and a purpose. I don’t think any CEO ever gets bored or has to be told

  7. pointsnfigures

    Having a concise mission statement to rally around helps you keep it simple. Something about fitting it in 140 characters helps if you can.

    1. JimHirshfield

      What’s your mission tweet?

  8. Guy Lepage

    Startups should always, always, always, I repeat, always, apply the KISS methodology to everything. I relate it to my Ironman racing.. The more you have to do on race day, the greater chance of failure as it slows you down.Startups are a race against burn rate. The more layers you add to anything, the greater chance of failure as it slows the thought process down and ultimately those seconds over a long race, like Ironman, add up.

  9. Jake Baker

    I love the message of this post, but I note that it’s one of those elegant and focused messages that one can only agree with, emphatically. So to stir things up, just a little, how do you handle the messaging as things get more difficult and shift?I’m thinking of major pivots or shifts in a market, that require substantial change? Maybe the simplicity of the original message helps significantly with that?Where are the situations where this advice is hardest to apply? What are examples of it being performed successfully?What about evolution in a message? What is the right time for the message to change slightly? In retrospect, how did this work at Uber or Foursquare? Mission seems very different from product — Uber: “On-demand transportation and logistics anywhere”, but initial product “taxi on demand wherever you are”….?Just musing beyond a pure echo of “I love this and agree!”

  10. Girish Mehta

    When the messaging becomes complex in organisations, it is due to many things but rarely due to boredom.I am reminded of many years back when I repeated this line to team members across markets as diverse as Japan, China and Australia -“Marketing is Simple. Simple is not Easy”.Its not about Marketing really. “Simple, Not Easy” applies to many other things – for e.g. Investing. Or Fitness.It applies to many things in Life actually.

    1. Jake Baker

      A plucky attempt to simplify: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”:-D

    2. Tom Labus

      Direct and honest helps too

    3. Susan Rubinsky

      Love this. Stealing. But with attribution.

  11. Tom Labus

    It helps if your short message is accurate too!! But, in most cases, that’s a luxury.

    1. Girish Mehta

      If you start with the objective of crafting a short, simple message it doesn’t work because the world is not simple.It needs to be an outcome, not an objective. Usually the outcome of long, tortuous effort.One company – individual that has done it well over the last 20 years is Amazon-Bezos.

      1. LE

        The example that I would use is probably Fedex, at least early on at the beginning. You knew exactly what Fedex meant and (reading some of the early books about it) what was expected of employees. “Employee climbs mountain in snowstorm to deliver package”.Question. How would you summarize Bezos and Amazon? After all first there were books, then merchandise, then AWS. So what was the message? The only message I can think of was a Trump esq. “Believe in me and let me loose boatloads of money it will all work out in the end”. To that point what would people think of Jeff’s “message” (and I do want to know what that message was still) if things hadn’t worked out the way they have? Or if he hadn’t done AWS?

        1. Tom Labus

          Trust me

        2. Girish Mehta

          To your comment in the second paragraph – I actually do believe that Bezos’ success in convincing Wall Street about his Field of Dreams (Build it and they (customers) will come) was critical for him to get the runway for his vision to play out. Not to believe, but to convince Wall Street to believe.But that wasn’t what I was referring to in terms of keeping it simple.What I think Amazon did successfully over a very long time was to take a very complex operation and keep it simple about one thing – “No Buyer Remorse”.Which for a long time broke down into 3 simple pillars – (1) – Price (2) – Selection (3) -Dependable Delivery (this doesn’t apply entirely to areas they have moved into in the last 5 years, but broadly these still hold).”No Buyer Remorse”. Or call it “No Regrets” if you like.You can also say Customer Experience, but everybody says Customer Experience. What Amazon did was to break down very simply in to what that meant internally and externally and executed to it.When was the last time you checked if Amazon actually had the lowest price ?There can be times when you might find something lower price somewhere else, but they own the “No Buyer Remorse” space.

          1. LE

            When was the last time you checked if Amazon actually had the lowest price ?Exactly. It’s a perfect example of people satisficing on price. It’s low enough and people are either time starved or lazy and don’t want to take the time to see other options. Honestly primarily in my case because:a) Having to sign upb) Not being familiar with a new guic) Speed of search and presentation of results.For me return policy isn’t typically an issue or something I think about because most only vendors offer the same.Now I have to tell you that I found a similar behavior in customers of my first business. We didn’t have the best quality and we didn’t have the lowest prices however we were very responsive, returned calls and acted quickly and fixed any mistakes. Part of the secret sauce was making it so customers didn’t have to think and so they became dependent on us. [1] So if they had a job the knew they could call and a friendly person [2] would take the order or ask details and they could move on to the next thing they had to do. As such we could easily charge 20% more than anyone else even someone with better quality.[1] The ‘don’t make me think’ was baked in. Don’t give to many choices, point people in the right direction and so on.[2] And we were always glad to hear customers call. That very genuine reinforcement was part of the experience. CSR’s presented a certain way because the person above them was excited as well when an order came in (no bell ringing just a smile basically that said ‘that’s great’).

          2. cavepainting

            You nailed it. Everyone says customer experience and thinks it is about the UX. It really is less about that and more about what the customer thinks he is going to get and ensure that he gets that.Every.Single.Time.With Amazon, it is the fact that the customer expects the lowest price and the broadest selection. As long as they execute to that core promise, it will be very hard to compete against them.

          3. Girish Mehta

            When a company’s playbook is there for the world to see, and others cannot execute to that playbook as effectively as them, that makes them a very difficult competitor. The secret to their success is that there is no secret. And the Bezos factor is huge.

        3. Salt Shaker

          Continued revenue growth gave him the requisite runway, even though profitability didn’t seem attainable. AWS was huge, and your Q of “what if” is valid if the company hadn’t found this magic potion.

          1. Girish Mehta

            AWS is very highly profitable but still ~ 10% of their revenue.Its a $12 billion revenue run rate business on a $115 + billion revenue run rate company.

          2. LE

            Hence the secret sauce of Amazon was really ‘selling the dream’. Similar to a politician that gets elected. As such trying to follow any of it’s principles (which is what happens in business articles, business schools and so on) is often futile (but makes good reading) if one can’t emulate master the most important feature ‘selling the dream’.I saw the 60 Minutes on the Prime Minister of Italy. Very obvious that the secret sauce is his personality even though they tried to point out that he won some jeopardy like competition when he was, I think, 19 and in college.

          3. LE

            One thing I give Bezos/AWS lot’s of credit for is the somewhat risky move of coming up with new names for old things on AWS vs legacy hosting and colocation. This is actually key to getting people locked into the platform. New and les experienced techs get used to their naming scheme and are less likely to switch to another vendor since it really takes quite a bit of thinking to do so. It’s quite a CF (clusterf***).Meanwhile Rackspace which used to be known for “Fanatical Support” as their key differentiation is now just “#1 Managed Cloud Company” which is something quite frankly that anyone can call themselves…. https://uploads.disquscdn.chttps://uploads.disquscdn.c

  12. awaldstein

    This is my entire world.True as it gets.

  13. awaldstein

    @wmoug:disqusWhat is the simple positioning statement for blockchain as a platform?Or an example (s) of anyone who has nailed their positioning in the sector?

    1. Lawrence Brass

      Good question. I like what William said at steemfest, “the blockchain is many things”, its honest but probably not an answer for your question. Waiting for William’s answer.

      1. awaldstein

        thats not a positioning statement or At least I hope not 😉

        1. Lawrence Brass

          the blockchain needs disambiguation and I guess that’s what William has been doing. There is an interesting slide in his talk, it divides blockchain companies and organizations in 4 groups. I want that stack.

      2. Girish Mehta

        I actually don’t think a positioning statement matters at all for Blockchain. Even as a platform.I would give Public Key Crypto as an analogy. What is the positioning statement for Public Key Crypto ? But public key crypto has been around for 40 years, is very valuable/widely deployed and we do transactions everyday using it.The solutions that deploy Blockchain will need to create their appropriate positioning.

        1. Lawrence Brass

          I agree with that. Blockchain positioning is being new, an experiment. In the long run I think it will succeed. Curious you mention public key cryptography, I think that blockchain will eventually give us what PKC has failed miserably to give us which is real privacy. PKC as implemented in the web is SO broken.

        2. Amar

          There was not a gold rush of dreams/investment/speculation just around PKI as a tech. Both a product of the times and the tech of course. I think with blockchain the cart is somewhat in front of the horse because of all the investment and FOMO hype around it … which in turn is forcing questions it is not prepared for

          1. Girish Mehta

            Why does blockchain have this investment hype around it ?Is that *primarily* a product of these times….does it have similar hype if Satoshi’s email goes out in 2001, and the clock starts ticking from that point onward ? Thanks.

    2. William Mougayar

      good question. what’s the one for the internet / web ? and how has it evolved in time?The Internet of money

      1. LE

        Yes, and, most importantly the blockchain is not a product being sold by a single company or individual. [1] As such you would probably not get agreement by the ‘central committee’ anyway.[1] The positioning statement for sex, which doesn’t need a positioning statement, is probably pleasure and power.

      2. awaldstein

        See response above. I may have misspoke and the question should have been:Examples of companies build on or leading with Blockchain as part of their value prop who have nailed their positioning?

        1. Henry Yates

          “Digital Asset builds distributed, encrypted straight through processing tools. Our technology improves efficiency, security, compliance and settlement speed.”

      3. jason wright

        I would say it’s the opposite…if I’ve interpreted your meaning correctly.The internet we have right now is the one of money, the extraction of by converting personal data to private profit to the maximum extent permissible by law and with willful disregard to any other societal impact it may have on all levels (wages, jobs, political rights et.c.).The blocknet is about the dilution of the power of those who seek to extract, and the establishment of personal sovereignty over personal data. Nothing less than the writing of a new Constitution as i see it.

        1. Twain Twain

          I agree with you. The big vision is a universal Constitution for all Internet users.It’s gone down the wrong wormholes and not crossed the chasm to consumers because the language around it is boring AND scares people off.

          1. jason wright

            Yes, which is a Constitution for All as the blocknet will be universal.

          2. Twain Twain

            The words “block” and “chain” don’t work.The first makes us think of obstructions to our lives.The second makes us think of being bound, restrictions to personal choice and jail.As a marketing identity it SUCKS. It doesn’t even inspire a techie like me — much less Joe+Jane Public.Meanwhile, a “Universal Constitution” speaks to personal liberty, democracy and social contracts of choice, facilitated by “laws created by the people for the people.”

          3. jason wright

            chain says to me that we are all linked together, and that unhappily forces are at work that are separating entirely groups of people from other groups of people, the complete dislocation of society through economics. Unacceptable because it is dangerous.Block is the atomic unit. Every ecosystem has its own atomic unit, be it satoshi, tweet, snap…It could be renamed, to something that expresses the techs intent, but by what process of consensus?

        2. Salt Shaker

          So where’s the consumer benefit? “Is personal sovereignty over data” synonymous with trust and security. Not sure “dilution of power” is all that disconcerting to the masses, but, of course, The Donald and Brexit would suggest otherwise.

      4. creative group

        William Mougayar:IOT (Internet of Things)

      5. cavepainting

        The internet is a set of technologies and protocols that enable peer-to-peer communication. The first applications built atop the internet (like Amazon or EBay for commerce, Yahoo for navigating web pages, or Geocities for group communication) were the ones with specific business or usage based messaging.Same is likely to be true for block chain.

      6. Kirsten Lambertsen

        Is it limited to money? What about Internet of Identity?

        1. William Mougayar

          Yes, the blockchain has many identities 😉

    3. Salt Shaker

      I wonder if a blockchain positioning statement is all that impt? It’s a platform (“decentralized digital ledger”) whose relevancy is entirely dependent on how it’s deployed (the benefit). Isn’t how a company utilizes blockchain (context) all that really matters? Conversely, FB is both a platform AND a brand so questions regarding its positioning are far more relevant.

      1. awaldstein

        Great answer and you are correct.Maybe the question should have been, Examples of companies build on or leading with Blockchain as part of their value prop who have nailed their postiioning?

        1. cavepainting

          For example, a company that uses block chain for smart contracts could say “we help you reduce fraud,optimize cash flow, and make performance based payments that are 100% verified”.You are right that the positioning is too “protocol”ish and less around business benefits, but isn’t that also the nature of early stage technologies ?If and when there is significant adoption of business solutions atop block chain,what we call as block chain is likely to meld into the background and become an enabling technology – just like what happened to the internet. We do not discuss HTML, browsers and P2P decentralized communication any more. We take it for granted that they exist and enable value creation.

  14. Thor Snilsberg

    After working with an executive coach, he shared my leadership personality. He labeled me a “complicator.” Like lots of entrepreneur and founders, I see the world full of large systems and forces creating new opportunities and challenges. I too get board “saying the same thing” over and over. However as an executive, my coach was helpful in honing my message and making sure everyone is pulling in the same direction.

    1. creative group

      Thor Snilsberg:Board or bored? Think we got it.No response required. Happens to us humans time to time.

  15. Vinish Garg

    What a coincidence that Brad Feld too talked about the same *advice* by John Lilly, just a day earlier:….Many a times, leaders miss out on simplicity for lack of *clarity of purpose* and *clarity of thought*!

  16. creative group

    CONTRIBUTORS:“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”― Maya Angelou

  17. creative group

    CONTRIBUTORS:OFF TOPIC ALERT!Question!First adopters? Is anyone intending, using or considering using AT&T’s TV streaming service DirecTV Now?Are you using another chord cutting service? What is it and do you like it?Are you using solely on Tablet, Notebook or phone? How is the experience.Thanks in advance.Considering ditching Cox Cable. Tired of the two monopolies in area (county). Actually the fake news assisted in the consideration. News and sports were the only reason to view TV and there is no reason with the lack of journalism and the envogue of hiring commentators who masquerade as journalist has run its course.

  18. creative group

    CONTRIBUTORS:OFF TOPIC ALERT!Did anyone else read the WSJ and Fortune follow-up article on China’s Social Control Credit Rating. Troubling to say the least to view what China is doing with data. It was inevitable, if people provide their personal data free of charge (FB). But it appears those in China will not have a choice.

  19. Tre Miller-Rodriguez

    Simplification definitely seems to be in the zeitgeist. Just finished reading “Why Simple Wins,” which explores the positive effect of simplicity on corporate culture, profits and employee retention. Simple messaging and lack of jargon were big themes.

  20. Elissa Shevinsky

    The primary message of this post – that leaders should use a simple and consistent message – is excellent. However, it is unnecessary to also make the claim “The number one cause of employee unhappiness and unwanted departures is “I don’t understand where we are going.” Can you back that up?The available data points to other reasons why people leave, as well as a disconnect between the reasons stated publicly and the actual reasons. Employees who quit will – off the record or in private forums – cite frustration with unprofessional work conditions, inability to get promoted or see their work ship etc. How certain are you that improving corporate messaging is the biggest thing companies can do to retain employees and improve culture?

  21. Christopher Loggins

    This sounds like a conclusion made by a disconnected person. I’ve never heard anyone give this as an answer. It’s always been really simple answers.People leave because they’re treated poorly, can get better pay elsewhere, or the new position better fits their lifestyle. Being treated poorly can be as simple as being treated like a number. Getting more money is obvious. More allowance for family or life is too.If you think people are leaving, because you didn’t have a simple message, maybe you’re talking too much.