I recently finished the first project I’ve ever been truly proud of. It’s a new checkout on Bonobos.com— a pretty nerdy, insignificant thing, but it increased Bonobos’ revenue by 31% overnight.
The project was by most standards absurdly successful, but life has funny ways of pulling us back down to earth. It ultimately led to my departure from the company.
I hope you find this story interesting.
Whatever it takes
“Make our checkout not suck,” Andy Dunn says to me at breakfast one morning at Buck’s Woodside, a hokey but iconic Silicon Valley diner near our Palo Alto office. Andy is the CEO of Bonobos, and he’s trucking through a plate of huevos rancheros.
I take a very, very long sip of coffee. It’s the type of diner coffee that isn’t very good, but what it lacks in taste it makes up for in availability. I’m on my fourth cup because the server keeps topping off my mug without asking. I wonder if her gratuitous refilling is some sort of sick Zimbardo experiment.
“What?” I eventually squeak without looking up, in the sort of way I respond when I’d rather not acknowledge what’s being asked of me. “Make it the best checkout on the Internet, whatever it takes,” he replies. “And stop hiding in your coffee.”
I look at him with a batshit grin. “Whatever it takes, eh?”
That never happened. Andy never said that to me, whatever it takes. I just wish he did, because this type of directive is a lot easier to follow when it comes from the CEO.
I get why he didn’t. Whatever it takes is the type of line you’d hear someone say to Liam Neeson before he spends two entertaining hours rescuing his kidnapped daughter. But you wouldn’t say that about building a checkout.
The problem is I am a crazy person. I totally said those words to the engineers on the project. I frequently say things like “let’s make it the best in the world, whatever it takes.” I prioritize doing great work over everything else, and I have very little patience for people who don’t.
Make no mistake: this is not a good thing. It’s a psychosis. But it’s something I constantly learn from, and on the checkout project I think it helped me understand the key to consistently producing great things.
The difference between good and great
Every block of stone has a sculpture inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it. —Michelangelo
Sculpture is creation through deletion. You work and work and work and chisel away at the marble until you’re left with only the minimum amount of stone required to reveal the perfect figure. No more, no less.
You don’t get to a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David by attaching two jacked arms to a manly torso. Lots of good things don’t add up to a great thing.
Greatness is counterintuitive. It’s not about creation. It’s about being willing and able to eliminate all the good things that get in the way of accomplishing your goal, no more, no less.
But this is hard in the real world.
Most companies don’t get rid of good things
Bear with me for a moment and consider the Macbook Air. Seriously I'm sorry but just keep reading for two seconds.
Apple wanted so badly to make a stunningly light and thin computer that they ruthlessly chose body design and build precision over lots of USB ports and an optical drive. Those two features are damn useful, and at the time every other computer had them. But they simply couldn’t have made such a slim, lightweight computer without a move the earth commitment to get rid of everything that got in the way of their goal.
I’m sorry for resorting to Apple anecdotes, but there are very few companies that actually embrace this whatever it takes attitude. Few companies are willing to get rid of good things like optical drives because they produce a return on investment.
The people at these other companies aren’t malicious defenders of the status quo or anything. They’re actually quite talented. They just aren’t committed to shipping the best possible products, whatever it takes. And they need something to push them to make that commitment, because getting rid of good is counterintuitive. It just feels plain wrong.
So what can push them to eliminate good whatever it takes?
Navy SEAL culture can, that’s what
A friend of mine is a Navy SEAL. Did you know that as part of SEAL training the candidates are locked in small wooden boxes and subjected to a looping audio track of babies crying for 12 hours straight? What the fuck?
Why does the Navy do this? Because if you’re crazy enough to tolerate this type of torture just to be a SEAL, you clearly have the whatever-it-takes attitude they’re looking for. An objective (albeit extreme) hiring methodology.
Conversely, why do people work so hard and endure so much physical and mental pain to be a Navy SEAL? Because once you’re a SEAL, you enjoy three privileges few humans share:
Everyone you work with is a badass mother fucker, and you can count on them. If anyone you work with stops being a team player, they get kicked the fuck out. You can accomplish with a small team what others can’t with a whole army.
How did the Navy pull this off?
- They defined a clear personality type for successful employees.
- They defined an exceptionally high performance standard.
- They objectively test candidates for personality match and performance capability.
- They never hire or delay firing an individual who does not match the personality type and exceed the performance standard.
These four steps make the Navy SEALs a company that is ruthlessly difficult to get into but amazing once you’re accepted. And the resulting culture sets a very clear expectation: if you work here, you’re the best of the best. And because humans routinely perform up to their expectations, this culture actually takes qualified people and makes them better than they would be on their own. The culture pushes them.
This is the importance of being ruthless. And it can change the world.
Now you know why I’ve left Bonobos
I want to be in a ruthless culture. Bonobos has an award-winning culture: transparent, hard working, and a hell of a lot of fun. But it's not ruthless. Their culture is different. Not better or worse, just different. I wasn’t a good fit.
So now what?
“He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.” —Friedrich Nietzsche
At this stage of the game, what is far less important than why.
How many startups are focused on solving a meaningful problem and moving society forward? Five? Ten? How many of them are run by Elon Musk?
Most startups are a waste of time and brainpower. There, I said it. We solve super niche problems just to get that cofounder badge and drive equity value. Making money is admirable. And startups are hard as fuck, so these entrepreneurs deserve a lot of credit. But the world outside the startup bubble needs more from us. We can do better. We need to do better. And we will do better.
I’ll write about the what soon. But for now, I am far more concerned with finding passionate and hungry people with whom this goal resonates.
Culture comes from the founders. If you read the words whatever it takes and think “god, I wish my team talked like that,” send me a message here on Quora. Let’s talk. We can build something amazing together.