Few founders would list RyanAir or Walmart as an inspiration (big scale at the cost of unhappy customers and staff). But knowing what you want to avoid can be a more useful guide than knowing what you want to become. It’s hard to draw action from admiring a company or founder. Let’s say you admire both Tony Hseih (Zappos) and Steve Jobs. And now you’re trying to decide which sort of culture to build or business model to choose. Do you prioritise employee happiness or the founder’s product vision? Do you outsource manufacturing or invest heavily in local automation? You’re kind of stuck.
Compare that to having a strong antilog (e.g. you want to be the opposite) in Groupon and know you never want to run a business like that. This is more instructive because it gives you bright clear lines: stay away from low-cost service businesses; don’t choose a model that requires scaling a sales team; and don’t motivate employees with a culture of fear. Instead of using an analog to say that we want to “be more like Apple” (which is fuzzy and unhelpful), antilogs give us a guideline which can actually guide us.
We fall into the trap of building companies we hate by only looking at what we want to become, and never what we want to avoid. I admired companies that were “big” and wanted mine to be the same. And I ended up building a company I didn’t particularly enjoy, because I never considered what I didn’t want to do (for example, becoming a sales guy and building a sales organisation). On the other hand, when I started blogging, I spent some time paying attention to bloggers I had no respect for. As long as I avoided doing those things, I trusted that I’d basically be okay.
Early in one of my projects, an advisor said to me, “You know this is a call-center business, right?” He meant that if we succeeded, we would need hundreds of people on phones providing mediocre service to our customers. And that’s an interesting thought. Because everyone wants to be “big”. But there are a lot of flavours of big, and not all of them are going to be equally palatable to any given founder.
Spend a couple minutes considering which successful people you never want to become. Which companies you would hate running. Get some strong antilogs; they’re more helpful than role models.