Avi Muchnick

"My name in large, bold font."

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On startup transparency

When I first started @Aviary, I planned to be completely transparent about the company’s progress with everyone: employees, users and total strangers.

I understood that traditionally, early startups were in complete stealth mode and closed about their plans and progress.

That seemed silly to me.

It didn’t make those startups seem mysterious. It made their ideas seem indefensible if the only way to protect it was to keep quiet about it: A good startup idea is one that leverages the founders’ unique insight, backgrounds or positions in a defensible way. Worse, being silent made their progress seem minimal: It’s rare that a successful startup stays quiet for very long.

Take this January 2010 tweet from Dennis Crowley on Foursquare’s early growth, for example:

Our growth curve no longer looks like a hockey stick. It looks like a skateboard ramp with 4 feet of vert. Bananatown.

Your silence speaks volumes

There is cruel irony in that even people who think they are being stealthy aren’t. You are always sending signals to everyone around you, even by not sending any at all. When you are quiet about your progress or lack thereof, you are actually sending out terrible signals to the world.

Ycombinator’s Paul Graham can always tell when a startup is dying:

For us the main indication of impending doom is when we don’t hear from you. When we haven’t heard from, or about, a startup for a couple months, that’s a bad sign. If we send them an email asking what’s up, and they don’t reply, that’s a really bad sign. So far that is a 100% accurate predictor of death.

Transparency is good across your company

One of my good friends and former Aviary engineers, Mo Boehm, once commented to me:

"It’s probably a good idea to write all of your code anticipating that a thousand people will see it."

Damn straight. Transparency (or the intention of it) leads to better decisions, in code and the real world.

Once you’re in the habit of being transparent, you make better decisions simply because you have no choice. You are being judged by everyone, and that’s a great thing. You can’t coast along or plateau without being held accountable by the world. An underperforming startup flying under the radar of the world is the worst thing for everyone involved in that startup. You can only coast for so long. Money runs out and investors will eventually see your flat stats. Being transparent with the world will force you to deal with problems immediately, before it’s too late.

And if you have no skeletons in your closet, you can’t be caught off guard when sensitive data inevitably leaks (because it will).

Learning the hard way

In Aviary’s early history and against my better judgement, I abandoned being transparent after someone close to the company told me I was being naive and that data shouldn’t be shared, not with strangers and not even employees.  I wasn’t experienced and confident enough at the time to trust my instincts. This person was well meaning, but in retrospect it was wrong advice for Aviary.

There were repercussions in a variety of ways:

  • Our users lost a personal connection to the team. We were no longer Aviary: the Product Team, a scrappy, enthusiastic group of individuals trying to change the world by making cool products. We were just Aviary: The Product. Users can’t have a personal relationship with a product.
  • Our users no longer had any insight into our product plans. Some of our earliest feedback and user excitement came from regularly checking the Aviary blog for new tidbits on what was coming out and how traffic was performing. After getting quieter we lost a lot of that prime buzz among our earliest adopters.
  • Our employees no longer had any window into how we were performing. When we tightened our belts, as will happen in startups, it caught them completely by surprise. Not cool. It makes those who stayed with the company lose their feeling of job security that comes with a window into the data. NOTE: Startup employees don’t fear being let go. They fear it happening unexpectedly.
  • The lack of transparency filtered out into other ways, that ultimately infected the company DNA. For example, my team would be loathe to share bad news about late deadlines, etc… with me. And I in turn would be loathe to share bad news with investors and the board. Not healthy.

It reached a point when I decided I had enough and was going back to the basics. At the same point we officially repositioned Aviary as a photo-editing API that developers could plug into their apps, I sat down my team and told them that from this day on we’d be completely transparent as a company. The culture had to change.

We make it a point to share key aspects from our board meeting with the entire team afterwards. Every week the team is given a full update on our growth metrics, product roadmap, current strategy, bd partnerships, etc… And most importantly, we’re back to interactively sharing our progress with the world.

In retrospect, I learned two very valuable lessons that I won’t ever need to repeat: 

  1. Always be transparent.
  2. Trust your own instincts. But that’s a post for another time.

More to come on Twitter @avimuchnick.

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