Idealism gets a raw deal. At least, it gets me a raw deal. Years ago, I was sitting around a table with a bunch of people at least ten years my senior. Social media, that old chestnut, was giving our company trouble. People kept using it to complain. It hit me like a bolt of lightning:
“What if we committed to overhauling our culture so that the customer always, always, always came first in our processes and our perceptions? Then people would stop falling through the cracks and getting pissed off on the internet. And word of mouth would get even bigger for us!”
Everyone looked at me like I was an alien.
Sometimes it’s delivered with a sneer, other times exhaustion, and occasionally, there’s even contempt:
Ideals, it seems, are academic contrivances that hinder How Real Business Gets Done.
I can’t escape my idealism. Sure, I’ve launched v1 before it was perfect, accepted a minor bug or two in a release, fine. But at no point have I ever sacrificed the core of the user experience to any other cause. User experience is the compass by which I judge every decision.
I configure my values this way because I’ve seen first hand how powerful it can be. Not just in software, in web applications, in innovative, industry-changing businesses…
But also: in dog grooming.
I got my idealism from my mom. Whatever town she’s in, she’s the best dog groomer there is. After years of working for stupid, short-sighted shops, she set her sights on a business of her own. With nothing more than a GED and her ideals, she renovated a space and got to work.
The biggest challenge to scaling her wildly successful business? Finding people who were skilled enough to match her quality of work or genuine love of animals. It was impossible.
My mom had two options: hire on people she knew weren’t up to her standards or stay the size she was. She wanted growth – who doesn’t? But she knew she couldn’t just hire crappy people. Her shop’s growing reputation was built entirely on her quality of work. People loved the idealism that inspired outrageous standards of hygiene for the facility. People whose dogs usually couldn’t stand going to the groomers suddenly lost their fear, because for the first time grooming meant being treated humanely.
Ideals had created differentiation. Bad people would destroy that progress. In the short term, yes, her bandwidth would increase and more dogs could come through the shop. In the long term? She’d be just another grooming shop with tepid business – or no business. The worst part of all, I know now: she wouldn’t be proud of her shop anymore.
So she chose secret option C: Open a grooming school.
In hindsight, of course, this is obvious. It wasn’t then. It was risky. It cost a lot of time and effort to get licensing to train. Putting together course materials and a curriculum is a very different skill set than grooming dogs. Shifting from spending all your time grooming to most of your time teaching? Very difficult.
But it worked.
The revenue from a steady stream of students smoothed out an otherwise highly cyclical business. The option to have dogs groomed by students opened the shop up to new clients who had been unable to afford the previous up-market rates. Constant oversight meant even inexperienced groomers were sweating the details and doing things right. Daily bandwidth increased dramatically with only a marginal impact on quality. Best of all, when a star pupil came through the program, they could be immediately recruited after they finished training.
There were hiccups – students could definitely botch their work at times, but the risk was baked into the price, so it didn’t harm reputation. Picky clients could opt out of the student work at the old rates, and many did. Overall, everyone was happy, including the many animal lovers who discovered how to make dogs part of their professional lives through grooming.
True to form, my mom found a way to have her cake and eat it, too: way more money without sacrificing the quality of her work.
None of this would have been possible had ideals not played a huge role in making decisions. Absent ideals, I’m not even sure she would have gone to work for herself.
I can’t escape my idealism. And I don’t want to. My ideals are a map to build trust, solve problems and, in some small way, make the world a better place. The only article of faith I have is that, with a bit of work, that map leads to success. And in the end, without my ideals, I couldn’t build software, or anything, and enjoy it.
There are limits. You can’t pay for a sandwich with a song. Idealism is not a business model. Idealism is a tool. It’s a fulcrum for making difficult decisions and your flashlight in the darkness of ambiguity. It helps you understand the success conditions for every move you make.
I won’t stop putting the user first and neither should you. Next time someone dismisses your idealism, look very hard: an opportunity could be lurking across the bridge they won’t cross.
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