The Radical Power of Authenticity


A Rebellious Guide Against the “Fake It Till You Make It” Mantra

Preview

Authenticity is a highly-sought value but very few companies know how to forge a genuine culture and craft strategies that put it at the core.

After all, there is no cookie-cutter template for instilling authenticity in a company but there are sustainable ways to develop it.

In this playbook, we’ve gathered insights from successful companies like Intercom, Basecamp and InVision, come up with frameworks, shared experiences, and devised principles to understand why we need to re-think the way companies craft authentic experiences that are meant to inspire change.

We asked seasoned experts from darling tech companies like Hotjar, Smartly.io, Criteo, Shopify and Loom to name a few who share valuable lessons and strategies about how to focus on human-first content, build cultures with stronger values, settle clashing perspectives about what it means to run a successful company, and implement sustainable growth strategies.

We need to reframe our strategies to be more genuine and sustainable — and this starts with being more authentic in all areas that make a company thrive.

What you'll learn:

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Re-thinking the value of authentic experiences

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Frameworks for solid team feedback

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Principles behind creating authentic content

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Building cultures with stronger values

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Key lessons and advice on growth strategies

01.
Introduction

Nothing speaks start-up language more than Zuckerberg’s once-notorious motto: “move fast and break things.

This mindset was initially devised to spark innovation, but today it encompasses how many entrepreneurs see disruption: speed is key.

But is this still the case? Well, yes and no. Yes, because for companies to succeed, being quick in execution is crucial. And no, because many entrepreneurs confuse speed with haste by skipping key aspects that make a company more authentic and successful in the long run.

According to HBR, this mentality forces companies to rush products into consumers’ hands as fast as possible, without regard for proper functionality, understanding the market’s needs, or sustainable growth strategies.

But mantras like ‘fail fast, fail often’ and ‘move fast and break things’ are starting to fail to live up to expectations when companies begin to consider the long-term impact and ethical responsibility they need to build trust.

In the How to Be Great article, Steph Smith says that “moving fast and breaking things” is not a strategy, unless you are clearly defining a process of learning so that in the future, you can “move fast and break less of the same things”.

This is a crucial differentiator between the two ways of doing things and the first ones to observe our intentions are our customers.

As HubSpot CTO Dharmesh Shah states in the Customer Code “customers don’t mind paying, but they do mind being played.”

A similar example is the First Round article Don’t Serve Burnt Pizza (And Other Lessons in Building Minimum Lovable Products), in which the writer presents an analogy by Jiaona Zhang, Senior Director of Product, WeWork and Lecturer at Stanford.

“Say you’re trying to test whether people like pizza. If you serve them burnt pizza, you’re not getting feedback on whether they like pizza. You only know that they don’t like burnt pizza. Similarly, when you’re only relying on the MVP, the fastest and cheapest functional prototype, you risk not actually testing your product, but rather a poor or flawed version of it.”
— Jiaona Zhang

Hubspot Customer Code
Source: Living Up to the Customer Code

Over to the content space, we see that it has become saturated with SaaS companies producing more and more content. Most of them mindlessly follow industry ‘best practices’ and produce uncompelling content that lacks an authentic story in the pursuit of clicks.

We are aware that the ‘Fake It Till You Make It’ mindset originates from the philosophy of positive thinking and implies a theory of ‘you can do anything’ by convincing yourself that you can really do it.

And we don’t want to make authenticity just another buzzword that aims to jolt the start-up world.

But as Sam Altman puts it “We tell startups all the time that they have to grow quickly. That’s true, and very good advice, but I think the current fashion of Silicon Valley startups has taken this to an unhealthy extreme — startups have a weekly growth goal before they really have any strong idea about what they want to build.

02.
Why authenticity matters

Authenticity is a highly-sought value but very few companies know how to forge a genuine culture and craft strategies that put it at the core.

After all, there is no cookie-cutter template for instilling authenticity in a company but there are ways to develop it.

To start, think about how we are permanently surrounded by technology; the more we are dominated by apps, content, and products, the more we want to fight the noise and find authentic experiences.

Companies are aware of this so they will need to find ways to connect with people and offer them the authentic experiences they are looking for.

We believe authenticity matters because:

  • It fosters credibility with the outside world

  • It gives companies a unique personality

  • It allows brands to build trust

  • It establishes high quality across the board

  • It fosters team and customer loyalty

Louis Grenier,
Senior Marketing Strategist, Hotjar

In this day and age, you have no choice but to be authentic. People can detect bullshit from miles away, especially online. To be authentic, you first need to understand who you are and what you stand for and against.

If you don’t, you’re going to struggle to find your voice and have a tendency to copy what others are doing. It takes time to get to know your true self. It takes time to stop wearing a mask.

A good tip to get started is to ask your friends and colleagues what they think you actually stand for and against. You’re going to be surprised by the answers (hint: they are usually the same).

“To be authentic, you first need to understand who you are and what you stand for and against.”

Louis Grenier Avatar

Louis Grenier, Fighting bad marketing. Podcaster in Chief @ EHM_Podcast, Senior Marketing Strategist @ Hotjar

This year, we have identified a few concepts that further corroborate the need for authenticity:

03.
How to develop company authenticity

The identity of a company is based on values, principles, story, vision, and a clear mission, but it’s also closely linked with the personality and voice that define who we are and what sets us apart from the crowd.

InVision states that “the brand’s identity is how it looks and feels”, which means that the elements of a brand are visual. Beyond the visual direction, the story is always key.

So we could start with, “What is the story we're telling?”

A powerful story helps companies convey the type of value they are giving to customers. A story combines every single touchpoint of the user’s experience.

It’s essential to start with the company’s compelling story. Crafting our story to define and express our core ideas will help us create a memorable brand.

An example is Intercom, which has a compelling story and even though it’s a messaging platform, the company manages to mimic the ambiance of an Irish coffee shop where the founders used to work before it became a hyper-growth company.

Intercom’s brand focuses on values like personalization, playfulness, creativity, and usability. These values immediately translate into their visual language: vibrant colours, quirky illustrations, magazine-style blog and using real people in the visuals.

Intercom Cover Image
Source: Intercom Blog

Beyond its eye-catching visuals, Intercom has also weaved a strong story by constantly asking “why.”

“No matter how good your product is, if you can’t tell a cohesive, compelling story about it, you’re going to have a very hard time getting people’s attention when you actually do take it to market.”
- Intercom

In a competitive market, a company can’t differentiate itself only by offering a product. The idea is to craft a cohesive story across all of the areas of the company starting with the visual brand, the product or service, the mission and vision of the founders, the team, the content, and the marketing.

Or as Intercom says it “it’s about understanding why a customer would care about that mission, and translating that understanding into a story that will compel someone to start a trial and ultimately make a purchase.”

Naturally, every company has a different way of instilling trust in their brand. For example, Buffer puts emphasis on transparency to build trust so they created a transparency dashboard. Similarly, Drift’s stance establishes authenticity as a way to build trust so they launched their own reality TV show.

Slack’s manifesto focuses on humanity to build trust as well. This is a fundamental part of their voice: (clear, concise, and human). Slack is known for putting emphasis on quality pieces and creating a personal experience that is reflected throughout the organisation.

Scott Barker,
Head of Partnerships, Sales Hacker & Evangelist, Outreach

The words “fake it till you make it” have become bastardized in the information/social media age.

When I first started my career in sales, it meant having a belief that you could figure something out…as you were figuring it out. It was about having the confidence to keep pursuing a part of something even though you couldn’t yet see the whole. It was about self-belief and faith.

Times have changed. And now, more than ever, it seems to mean if you can put up a facade long enough, you will somehow become that mirage you’re creating. This can actually work long enough to make you think that it’s the right path to go down.

Bold claims and boasting seem to perform quite well on social media oddly enough. And this line of thinking will often be propped up by validation from the masses.

However, there’s one fatal flaw that brings the house of cards down…the people who aren’t faking it: the experts, the people who have done what you are ‘faking’ and those that are authentic.

By “faking it till you make it”, you’re alienating the people in your network that you can learn the most from and pandering to the lowest common denominator. Don’t do it.

People (and buyers) are craving authenticity now more than ever. In the information age, knowledge is a commodity. Anyone can learn anything with a quick YouTube or Google search so claiming to be a guru, ninja, (insert any cringe-worthy buzzword) in your field doesn’t impress people anymore.

The only true way that stands out in a sea of self-proclaimed experts is to be uniquely you. The you that is riddled with flaws, self-doubt, and imperfections. People don’t trust polish anymore.

Isn’t that great news? That the only way to succeed in this new world is to be as YOU as you can possibly be? That’s exciting to me. So next time you’re thinking you have to “fake it till I make it”, I urge you to replace that line of thinking with my favourite Naval Ravikant quote: “Escape competition through authenticity.”

“The only true way that stands out in a sea of self-proclaimed experts is to be uniquely you.”

Scott Barker Avatar

Scott Barker, is the Head of Partnerships at Sales Hacker, an Evangelist at Outreach.io, the market-leading sales engagement platform, and the host of the Sales Engagement Podcast.

Storytelling — What Is to What Could Be

Storytelling and content are interconnected.

Many companies know that the power of storytelling can transform their presence and identity.

Iconic brands like Slack and Intercom have grasped from the very beginning the power of their company story to build an authentic connection with their audience.

What’s a story, though? How does a story develop authenticity? How does it build trust?

By presenting content, marketing, and customer engagement as a story across the board, we not only make it compelling but immediately establish common ground with our audience.

It’s scientifically proven that stories are easier to remember than facts and will have a lasting impact on whatever we do.

Storytelling isn’t just meant to serve content creators or marketers. The ability to tell stories that inform, persuade, and inspire is at the heart of every aspect of a company.

According to First Round Review, building a compelling narrative is needed when founders pitch for the next big startup idea or when sales reps create scripts that win customers, or recruiters tailor company pitches to attract top talent.

When we craft a story, we can first use a framework to develop it whether it’s a presentation, an article, or a sales pitch.

Being honest with our audience, backing up our facts, and delivering on our promises will help us build long-term value and trust.

Show readers “what could be” as opposed to “what is” currently. Take Nancy Duarte’s example of writing powerful stories using the same techniques as great storytellers.

Resonate - What Is What Could Be
Source: Resonate - Nancy Duarte

People are willing to engage with brands (and trust them) by connecting with their content. But content always needs to tell a story, be informative and intrigue.

Storytelling plays an important role in this marketing ploy because, essentially, us humans have been telling stories for millennia — so for evolutionary reasons, storytelling has remained ingrained in our DNA.

Historically, we have always created myths and lived in dual realities to gain flexibility and cooperate in a sustainable way.

It makes perfect sense that evolution has taught humankind to live through stories — and that today, this process continues to be translated into our everyday lives, our work, and, ultimately, into the way we give brands a unique voice.

Our brains are wired to look for stories, which is why content remains the best medium to connect with people.

When we create something that solves problems and inspires, content that caters to a clear target audience, we create a space where readers always want to return to.

But exceptional content and loyal readership take time to build. So delivering stories that connect and endure, laying the right foundations and being steadfast to our principles is crucial.

As content increasingly becomes the norm, tactical storytelling is deemed as a science in itself. But in the end, what makes good stories lies in the creative quality that makes us human.

A Culture of Feedback

Jason Fried, Basecamp CEO, wrote that “making anything better is iteration.” To paraphrase him, iteration prompts teams “to perform or utter repeatedly.”

Everyone knows that iterating is crucial for success. We understand this because once a product is launched, we need to quickly get the most valuable feedback on what is right and wrong about it.

Any type of work needs to be rolled out quickly to get feedback and then moved back again to make sure it satisfies the highest level of quality.

In Fried’s book "It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work", the entrepreneur states that you should treat your company as a product.

"To improve a product, you listen, learn, (re)consider, conceptualize, and iterate. The same approach should be used to improve your company itself. How you work, how you manage, how you develop and communicate policies and procedures should all improve through iteration as well."

Companies should always invite feedback and create an environment of iterative learning. By nature, these processes are about learning and progressing to the next level. For every new iteration, feedback needs to be asked so that the next iteration moves in the right direction.

On the same page with this idea is Intercom, which enforces the “Ship to Learn” principle which means that the sooner we deliver something, the faster we get feedback on our assumptions and solution, so we can quickly learn if we’re making an impact.

Ship to Learn Schema
Source: Shipping is your company’s heartbeat

Slack is also known for establishing collaboration through feedback sessions and they strongly emphasize a top-down culture where leaders encourage employees to learn how to be collaborative at work through emails or short interactions.

“Often, high-performing teams respond less to perks than to a workplace that offers them the best tools to work with, meaningful connections, a culture of collaboration, and leaders who are transparent and value teamwork.”
- Slack

Modes of Feedback Schema
Source: In Person Feedback Is Best

Other methods to build a culture of feedback:

  • Make feedback a habit: After each project, ask peers what worked, what didn’t, and how to do better next time. Clearly communicate the intention behind the feedback you’re giving. Do it personally.

  • Create spaces for sharing quick feedback: social channels like Slack are a hub for shared ideas and work nicely when you need to request for anything from simple requests to larger projects.

  • Use a feedback loop: to help teams get better. This way, behaviour is measured and shared with the person in an emotionally resonant way. Feedback loops use the information to illuminate and prompt individuals to take action.

    A perfect example is Netflix, which uses the ‘360-Degree Feedback’ to evaluate employees. The culture encourages constant feedback. “The Keeper Test” is another cultural method the company uses to assess team performance. Managers often ask themselves: Would you fight for this employee?

  • Avoid the ‘Shit Sandwich’: Popularised by the “One Minute Manager” book, a shit sandwich is when you layer your feedback in a good-bad-good way. When using this technique, negative feedback is often buried and the interaction becomes very confusing. While this technique seems to be an easy option, it actually turns out to be counterproductive in shaping an authentic culture.

The Golden Circle — Start with Why

Simon Sinek urges leaders to “find their why” before doing anything.

We have often encountered companies’ inability to define their vision by answering these simple questions: why, what, and how.

There are only a few leaders, products, or companies that create major movements, inspire loyalty and drive change in their organizations.

Simon Sinek reinforces this idea by saying that “very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do.”

Start With Why Explanatory Schema
Source: “Start With Why” by Simon Sinek

“By WHY I mean your purpose, cause or belief — WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care? People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.”
- Simon Sinek

One of the most important factors of a company’s success is the clarity of its purpose which reverberates top down. ‘Why’ is important because it clarifies a mission, a vision and creates the basis for clear messaging.

It fosters process improvement across the board — from understanding customers’ challenges and pain points to getting to the root cause of intentions to questions, ideas and doing research that give leverage to organisations.

Robert Katai,
Content Marketing Manager, Bannersnack

I’m a big believer in experience and the journey. I know that I’m not the best content marketer out there but I’m working every day to become a better marketer than yesterday. That's why I'm showing my results, experiments, doubts, and questions around a topic.

And when I’m telling people about my experience, they can't say that it’s unreal, because it’s my own experience. And my experience and journey are unique.

That’s why these days you will see two kinds of people: one that will show you their journey in a specific area of their life (personal or professional) and one that will show you their results, that sometimes can be real or fake. But time will show you if you fake it or not.

We live in a world where authenticity is the currency.

And nobody can say that my experience is not authentic, or my journey is something that I fake to get some big results.

“We live in a world where authenticity is the currency.”

Robert Katai Avatar

Robert Katai is the content marketing manager of Bannersnack, a professional banner creation app for designers and marketers. He is also blogging on his personal website.

Divergent and Convergent Thinking

Before we figure out what to do, we must first figure out how to think like leaders and sometimes this means working with individuals that have different solutions to our problems.

In a nutshell, we need teams whose mindsets are both divergent and convergent.

Nancy Duarte explains in her book Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences that “divergent and convergent thinking styles were identified by J.P. Guilford in 1967 as two different types of thinking that occur in response to a problem. Divergent thinking generates ideas, while convergent thinking sorts and analyzes these ideas towards the best outcome.

Convergent thought is analytical, logical and controlled. It falls back on one “right answer” for a given problem.

In contrast, divergent thinking refers to the ability to come up with many solutions or ideas for problems that don’t have one solution.

How does this tie to authenticity? We cannot solve problems and overcome challenges by simply doing something different. This requires a different mindset in the people we hire and, eventually, work with or report to.

As leaders, we need to reinforce a new approach to hiring people with diverse thinking. We are convinced that the workforce of the future will heavily rely on complementary skillsets that are built for lifelong learning.

Breaking Information Silos — Tacit to Explicit Knowledge

In a space that is rapidly changing, the companies that are most likely to thrive will be those that provide an opportunity to learn faster.

One of the most difficult challenges companies face today is how they adapt to an environment that continuously evolves.

Information is everywhere. Technology is rapidly advancing. Knowledge is abundant. But there is still a disconnect between the knowledge we posses and how we distribute it across the board.

Knowledge silos hurt companies because they make it hard for teams to access information, get things done and perpetuate a culture of distrust.

There is a movement for top-down cultures in hyper-growth companies to slowly give way to open cultures based on transparency, visibility, and knowledge sharing.

The most powerful learning involves leveraging existing knowledge and creating new knowledge.

One company that does this well is Drift which follows Gary Vaynerchuk’s “document, don’t create” content strategy, which advocates documenting what companies do and then sharing it quickly.

This is valuable because anyone should be able to discover the information they need to do their jobs effectively. This means making information open whenever necessary. When doing so, we build a culture of trust by removing fears about what may be happening behind closed doors and by helping others understand the reasons behind decisions or initiatives.

But how do we embed that kind of mindset into the fabric of a company?

In workspaces that are constantly changing, new knowledge often comes in the form of tacit knowledge — knowledge that is gained from personal experience, which is more difficult to express.

Tacit knowledge evolves as we are faced with new situations and it is deemeed extremely valuable because it reflects our first-hand experience, but it is much harder to access and spread. It typically can’t be written down and shared with others.

On the other hand, explicit knowledge is easy to articulate, write down, and share.

There is also a middle point, which is implicit knowledge, or the application of explicit knowledge with skills that are transferable from one job to another.

Remember, scalable learning focuses on creating environments where new tacit knowledge can be created and evolve as workers confront new situations.

04.
Authenticity in Content

To challenge the status quo, companies need to move away from shallow, clickbait pieces to more time in-depth content — to make their voice heard and build more authentic experiences.

Connecting companies and readers through quality content written with clear editorial principles that revolve around purpose, by people who are not afraid to deconstruct bold ideas, and who take the time to connect with stakeholders and the community, should be the very foundation of content creation.

We can do so by weaving quality content by supporting arguments with advice, relevant data, and statistics from reputable sources and experts.

Tip: create content that is rich, informative and opinionated, content that is valuable because it revolves around a series of things like strong ideas, how you frame them, the way knowledge is curated and shared, and the type of experiences readers can relate to.

How can we write good content? At GrowthTalk, we have built our very own framework to write authentic long-form pieces.

  • Find the why.

  • Brainstorm the what.

  • Research.

  • Build the narrative.

  • Share insights, ideas, experiences.

  • Back it all up with reliable sources and facts.

  • Seek second opinions.

  • Rewrite everything for clarity.

We want to inspire and drive change through content that matters hence we anchor our work on these principles:

  • Writing with purpose

  • Engaging the community with authentic, high-quality content

  • Not being afraid to share bold ideas and experiences

  • Always informing, educating, and solving problems

When it comes to writing, we should start from the premise that writing is a slow process. So saying no is crucial if we want to focus on quality.

Just like top chefs spend hours perfecting a recipe, so do writers spend hours constructing and deconstructing ideas, researching, creating a narrative, illustrating problems and solutions, rewriting, and then rewriting some more.

Being a better writer means you always have to write. It's the compounding effect that makes anyone just a bit better than they were a day before. Reading a lot matters. Learning from experts helps. Studying how writers are mastering their craft is crucial. Taking a step back and learning how to be a better learner is also key.

But what makes a quality article? We create something qualitative when we lay the right foundations (knowledge and experience) and stick to our principles.

It’s important to set concrete guidelines and principles for what quality content is. Clear guidelines help us set expectations for those who are creating content and also help readers be on the same page with us.

Creating guidelines and principles help us build consistency and this is the key to simplifying what we need to do.

Yon Heong,
Content Strategist, Southeast Asia Tech Media and Events Platform, ex-e27.co

Crafting authentic content is becoming increasingly difficult in the age of information overload. For online media platforms, it is a battle of who can get the most content out in the fastest amount of time and with the most enticing headlines. This is a dangerous race that can sometimes lead to sensationalized stories or the viral spread of disinformation, with the fall out affecting both readers and content creators.

The question that content creators have to ask themselves is this: do they want to perpetuate this unhealthy cycle, or do they want to step back and examine how they create a more sustainable model?

There are no easy answers to these questions. Media platforms are already experiencing a steep fall in revenue streams, and many have had to rely on creating sponsored content to stay afloat.

Personally, the problem can be boiled down to this: how much of a premium do you want to place on authentic content? Insightful and in-depth articles take time, experience, and research to craft. Industry stakeholders — journalists, financial analysts, investors — may see value in paying money for subscriptions to publications.

But for the layman and bystander, it will take a lot of awareness and effort to convince them that it is in the public interest that these publications continue to operate; and that being personally invested in them will ultimately benefit both them and society.

“Insightful and in-depth articles take time, experience, and research to craft.”

Yon Heong Avatar

Yon Heong is a former content strategist at Southeast Asia tech media and events platform e27.co, where he helped to plan conferences and cover news about the Southeast Asia tech ecosystem.

Human-First Content

Intercom has built its reputation and customer base through the power of content.

Instead of following the traditional content marketing strategy focusing on SEO and backlinks, and publishing tons of content, the company first developed a unique strategy that made it successful within the startup community and beyond. By focusing on authentic content and dropping the term “content marketing”, Intercom has managed to build a brand that delights.

InVision is another great example. The company has built its content strategy as a contributor model which can often be deemed a dangerous choice if we want to maintain quality. InVision managed to mitigate this risk by setting quality standards and providing contributors with editorial support. They know their community has a lot of knowledge to offer — and they invest the time to help them unlock it.

The company has created a platform that gives designers a voice in their community. They coach them, edit their work, and distribute their stories to millions of readers. In the process, they’ve created a base of support that powers, even more, distribution and content opportunities.

“I write because I have something to say” is the default answer — and the most selfish one. If you want to impact people, you need to want to teach — meaning you’re willing to put in the time to figure out what’s been said and whether you can say it better.
- Shayna Hodkin, Lead Writer, Product and Marketing, hibob, ex-InVision Blog

Drift’s brand book and marketing manifesto also nail some of the ways they’ve humanized their content. They use plain, simple language to simulate everyday conversations.

Intercom uses employees and customers to personalize their marketing. They've also made a point to be “good enough,” championing a consistent output of solid content over a slower, more in-depth approach.

According to John Collins, Intercom Director of Content, “There are some companies that are really successful with content marketing driven by aggressive email captures, funnels, and A/B tests. But there’s also a growing cohort of companies who believe that if you focus on publishing authentic, human-first content, you’ll actually need to do minimal marketing to attract people to your product.”

When we write stories, we need to develop a clear sense of who we are and how we create value through a comprehensive, communicated, and contextualized framework that empowers readers to connect with us.

Without a clear sense of purpose, it’s impossible to write stories that change hearts and minds. The opportunity we have is to shift the stance that producing more content is better. More isn’t always better, nor is it effective. We need to revise our principles of content creation to create real connections. We would start with these principles:

  • Inspire — The word inspire comes from the Latin word that means to inflame or to blow into. When you inspire something, it is as if you are blowing air over a low flame to make it grow. Think about how leaders inspire change or how people getting together ignite movements.

    A powerful example is Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager who made headlines by starting a solo climate protest by striking from school. The young activist has been joined by thousands of school and university students around the world in climate strikes that have become regular events.

    The biggest event up to date gathered more than 4 million people. Her sense of purpose and dedication inspired millions around the world to do the same.

    Companies also have the power to inspire. Basecamp is one example that has been constantly influencing people to stick to simplicity and quality for decades.

    And it's not only their software that inspires but also the way they are channelling their knowledge, ideas, and experiences to help others succeed. We personally think Rework should be a compulsory read for anyone who works in the tech space.

    When our content inspires, we are creating it with the sole intention to motivate readers to be and do better than they were before reading it.

    To inspire, we always fall back on the power of storytelling, personal experiences, knowledge, and the ability to curate stories that build a wholesome, shared narrative.

  • Educate — When our content marketing strategy aims to educate, we are creating content that teaches readers something they did not know. To educate others in an area that is relevant to the product or service we're trying to sell or promote, we need to do so in a way that it adds value to their lives in the form of knowledge.

    But first, we need to think like learners ourselves and put our skin in the game.

    We can do so by learning better and gaining clarity to share our thoughts and ideas with our peers.

    Are you running a company? Do you have subject matter experience in a certain field? Sharing experiences and documenting your failures and successes as well as giving people the tour behind-the-scenes of how things are done are the starting points to shape up our content.

    When content educates, we are teaching people something they did not know.

Tonya Parker,
Content Growth Manager, Zest

To me, being authentic as a content writer means providing my audience with the full story, not just the parts that serve my interests. Authenticity means I’ve taken the time to investigate the problems and the solutions I’m writing about and have a sincere belief that the information I share is the best available.

It means that instead of writing an article that says, “You have a problem and ours is the only solution,” I write an article that says, “You have a problem and here are some of the ways you can choose to solve it, ours is one of them.”

Also, being authentic means that when I prepare to write about a new topic, I spend a lot of time doing my initial research. I track down primary sources and check the publication dates of content I want to reference.

It is often easier and faster to work backward: starting with a premise then finding the statistics or other facts to support it. But this doesn’t always result in content that serves your audience. The first results of a search aren’t always timely or accurate results and sometimes the top-ranking content misrepresents data or takes it out of context.

Other times, the data is just too old to still be relevant — the information has been passed down from one piece of content to the next until it is well past its internet expiration date.

My goal as a writer is always to present my audience with actionable information that they can use to solve their problems. Sharing high-quality, relevant content that tells the full story is so much better for your audience and your brand than “faking it.” It is worth the extra effort.

“My goal as a writer is always to present my audience with actionable information that they can use to solve their problems.”

Tonya Parker Avatar

Tonya Parker is the Content Growth Manager at Zest.is, a community-focused tech startup that supports professional knowledge-building through tribal self-learning.

Carmen Guillen,
Editor in Chief, Unfold

After knocking oil off the top spot, tech has become the most powerful industry in business. As top dog, tech is the automatic rule-setter. But with great power comes great responsibility: tech will, undoubtedly, shape future societies and cultures. It is our responsibility as communicators to be optimistic, foster collaboration, and provide hope for the future.

If we set the current rules of business communication in stone, we would never regain trust. The way we communicate should be aspirational, reflecting the world we want to see. This will mean rethinking the way we do business, to a model that is responsible, accountable and transparent. “Story-doing” is the only way to breathe credibility into your “story-telling.”

The new breed of savvy consumers can spot persuasion techniques from a mile away. They were brought up on corporate spin, theirs is a world of ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’. There is a reason why they now trust their peers more than traditional sources of authority. A peer is less likely to lie, a peer acknowledges your humanity.

Knowledge and communication respect human dignity. Your value as a brand does not diminish by giving away knowledge, or by communicating with respect. It is strengthened by treating your audience as equals, with empathy, as you would a friend.

Trust is gained through vulnerability. Companies are organic entities made out of real human being with real opinions, value systems and emotions. Don’t be afraid to showcase them, human fallibility builds trust, especially if it is self-aware and is hungry to learn.

Brands should strive for clarity, placing their audience as the hero of every story. No one wants to be the forgettable side-kick, being monologued for all eternity.

By acknowledging your audience’s humanity and dropping the corporate facade we set a precedent for the future. One where individuals and businesses alike communicate with transparency, patience and understanding. This is what it means to be truly authentic, and ultimately, this is where trust is born.

“Story-doing” is the only way to breathe credibility into your “story-telling.”

Carmen Guillen Avatar

Carmen Guillen is Editor in Chief of Unfold, an online magazine with practical articles for communicators in a changing industry. Carmen is passionate about ethical business and the magic of artful storytelling.

Quality over Quantity

A culture of quality is an environment in which teams not only follow quality guidelines but also see others taking quality-focused actions.

It’s important to set concrete guidelines for what quality content is. Clear guidelines help set expectations for users creating content and also helps new users understand what our app is about. Creating guidelines for a consistent brand personality is the key to simplifying what we need to do — and a strong brand personality sets the foundations for quality for both us and our customers.

If shifting focus from quantity to quality sometimes may sound like it could threaten the bottom line of businesses, research shows that companies with a culture of innovation see more payoffs in terms of growth and profitability when they focus on quality.

Harvard Business Review has pinpointed four factors that drive quality as a cultural value which are leadership emphasis, credibility, peer involvement, and employee ownership of quality issues.

To that, we’d add that quality means always keeping in mind Zest’s CMO Yam Ragev VAT frameworkbe Vulnerable, Authentic and Transparent.

While it’s true that quality work and loyal followers take time to build, when it comes to delivering something that connects and endures, setting the right foundations and being steadfast to our principles is crucial.

Similarly, in the case of writing content, we also need to understand what readers want.

Our favourite content is always educational. We find great value in someone sharing from their experience and the way they do things.

How to focus on quality content

  • Read books, articles, reports to gather knowledge

  • Do social listening to understand trends and markets

  • Engage with your audience directly to empathise with their needs

  • Learn from industry peers to add more value

  • Identify and challenge trends to come up with new perspectives

Steve Howe
Content Strategist, Shopify, ex-Typeform

Take a look at the two cookies below. Which do you prefer?

Screenshot of two cookies

In an experiment carried out by Richard Shotton for ZenithOptimedia, 66% of people surveyed preferred the cookie on the left. The imperfection boosted its appeal. Why?

He linked the result to the pratfall effect — a psychological bias that means we’re more attracted to people and things that show weakness.

We see this play out in everyday life and popular culture: the singer made even more endearing because she doesn’t fit the mold. The hesitant, bumbling posh English bloke declaring his love. Even politicians’ gaffes seem to help — not hinder — their personal brand.

And my most-liked Instagram image ever? Nope, it wasn’t sunset in Barcelona or my bike ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. It was the huge pile of dirty dishes in my kitchen.

Everyone has flaws. That’s why we respond positively when we get a glimpse of imperfection. We recognise ourselves in the mirror.

At Typeform, we got a positive response when we revealed our human side.

Do these subject lines look familiar?

Screenshot Mailbox

Terms and conditions are boring. I'm not saying they're unimportant—they tell you how companies use (and perhaps abuse) your data. But from a messaging perspective, these emails quickly turn your inbox into a binbox.

The first step is recognising that this is ‘content’. It's therefore an opportunity to connect with your audience just like any other piece of content.

The next step is showing your human side:

Screenshot of an email subject line

It feels counterintuitive to say: "Here's some content. It's boring." But the pratfall effect comes into play, readers see the human behind the message — and the content becomes refreshing.

We know, because people told us:

Screenshot of an email

The real opportunity, however, lies beyond just poking fun at something. It lies in changing the status quo itself.

So we went one step further. We created a plain English version of our terms and conditions. You know, so people could actually understand them.

Screenshot of an email

To do this, just activate your empathy glands—how would you feel if you were on the receiving end of the message you wrote? Avoid knee-jerk content that copies what everyone else is doing just because “that’s the way it’s done”. The way it’s done might be sterile, robotic, and inauthentic.

“Avoid knee-jerk content that copies what everyone else is doing just because “that’s the way it’s done”. The way it’s done might be sterile, robotic, and inauthentic.”

Steve Howe Avatar

Steve Howe is a content strategist at Shopify with a background in translation, teaching, and homelessness support. You'll find him in Toronto, probably kicking a ball around.

Michael Umansky,
Co-Founder & CEO, INK

We are inundated with content coming at us like a firehose: listicles, opinion pieces, how to’s, keys to success. With so much information coming at us in many forms, what makes content stand out?

What is that special something that makes us want to stop “skimming” and really read? I believe it’s the intersection of where relevant content meets authenticity. That’s the sweet spot.

It’s about content that resonates with your reader and makes them feel like it was written just for them.

Why do we need authenticity to thrive?

Simon Sinek once said ”Authenticity is more than speaking; Authenticity is also about doing. Every decision we make says something about who we are.”

Lack of authenticity in your writing and your marketing is easily recognizable and can ruin your brand.

Don’t try too hard. Just be yourself.

So how can leaders create better content?

The crucial things are to have an opinion and story worth telling. Make sure your articles move your audience and resonates with them. It should move your audience to connect with you.

Your reader should finish the piece and immediately feel like it was a great use of their time, and they have authentically connected with you.

Better content requires good writing skills. It’s also an art. The ability to craft the story and communicate it in a way that readers want to eagerly digest is what you should strive for.

For instance, we designed INK for the web content creator. It will help your writing by checking for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.

If your content is never seen, it can’t make that authentic correction with your audience.

INK was created with this in mind. It uses patent-pending AI to discover what your audience is resonating with. It optimizes your content for the style and language that the top sites on Google are using.

Companies that are doing Authenticity correctly:

Many people conflate authenticity and heritage. While having a lasting brand can oftentimes mean you have figured out authenticity, it’s not the only measurement.

Some of my favorite authentic brands are Sweetgreen, Peloton, and WHOOP. These companies know who they are and have a consistent message about their products, their voice and it really resonates with their customers.

“Please keep the content coming, be yourself, tell your story and give us your best authentic you.”

Michael Umansky Avatar

Michael Umansky, Co-Founder & CEO of INK, is a seasoned tech entrepreneur driven by the power of next-generation technology to shift the way businesses market themselves.

Stick to Principles

The best way to develop new ideas is to start by stripping things to the basics. Even if we aren’t trying to develop innovative ideas, understanding the first principles of any field is essential.

Without a firm grasp of a foundation, there is little chance of mastering the details that make the difference.

According to Farnam Street, First Principles Thinking is one of the best ways to deconstruct complicated problems. The idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then put them back together from the ground up.

This approach was used by the philosopher Aristotle and is used now by Elon Musk.

It’s one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself. Without data, it can get difficult to figure out if a problem is real or not. Many times, the decision simply ends up not being solved when things cannot be properly measured.

First principles thinking is the best way to rethink the fundamental blocks of a problem to decide what’s the best way forward.

Sumit Hegde,
SaaS Positioning & Messaging Consultant

Authenticity in content has a lot to do with mixing and infusing your personal experience with ideas that are already out in the world. To add your own two cents to the ongoing discussion — not borrowed two cents.

Look, no thought is original — We’re all indebted to great thinkers like ASAP Rocky for our content.

But the way you talk about it and present it can be.

Even from a purely business point of view, your audience is not going to remember you if your content is the same generic stuff that they can find in 10 other articles. You’re just another article, rather than a value-provider.

The way I go about it is to ask myself: What is something that I have learned in my journey, that would be super valuable to my audience? How can I present it in a voice that is unique and does not subtract my own experience from it?

When you talk about what you have learned from experience, over time — and not from 10 articles you Googled before creating your content — you’re automatically authentic. It’s that simple.

Stop letting your content creators write repetitive copy: choose people who truly understand the industry, can see where your product fits in the market and write copy that your visitors and customers see the value in.

I often try to create content that looks at a certain topic from a new angle — topic-selection is a big part of authenticity. I can’t write about the same topic, with the same format, with the same advice in a slightly different language and call it authentic.

You’ve got to do SOMETHING new. And that’s where experimentation comes in. You have to think around the generic topics and bring a new perspective to it.

I always write a brief which includes everything I know about said topic and then piece my article together. I’d recommend that content creation be a collaborative job, where the content creator actively requests insights from the whole team. That way, you can create an article that is filled with different types of experiences and lessons.

“You have to think around the generic topics and bring a new perspective to it.”

Sumit Hegde Avatar

Sumit Hegde helps SaaS companies acquire more customers through better positioning & messaging. He writes about Growth, Acquisition, and Marketing for early-stage companies.

Ruth Zive,
Head of Marketing, Ada

No matter what career we pursue, what new product or service we bring to market, or what problem we proclaim to solve for customers, there will always be a learning curve. You simply can’t launch something new and authentically declare you have it all figured out. And if you do — you’ll most certainly fail, because all products and services should evolve to meet the changing needs and interests of your customers.

So, what does authenticity actually mean in tech and in marketing in particular?

For me — it means always being mindful of your customers’ pain. Putting yourself in their shoes. And identifying, with confidence, the problems you solve, and why you solve them better. At Ada, where I currently work, our Founders spent many months working in call centres so they could understand, first-hand, the pain in the market. And that informed the technology they built. And continues to inform our marketing strategy, even years later.

We begin all of our marketing efforts at Ada with the customer top of mind. And that keeps us very grounded, forces a sense of empathy, and holds us accountable to our customers’ expectations.

That said — marketing is always going to involve some spin. Our content showcases an opinionated point of view. And as long as the customer is prioritized in that exercise, I’m 100% ok with it.

“Companies that are too dependent on faking it, in the absence of authentic consideration of the customer, will be exposed quickly.”

Ruth Zive Avatar

Ruth Zive is a skilled and metrics-driven marketing strategist who believes in evidence-based revenue growth through the coordination and alignment of marketing and sales processes.

05.
Authenticity in Culture

What is culture? Culture is the collection of beliefs on which people build their behaviour.

What is company culture schema
Source: Y Combinator Startup Class #10 : Company Culture and Building a Team

Culture is a big part of what draws people to join companies. Founders know how powerful this is when a company is in its early stages but realise it’s difficult to maintain a consistent culture once the company starts to grow.

As a venture evolves, identifying with the culture of the organization helps employees work across boundaries and engage in the collaboration and exchange of ideas the company needs to innovate.

Having a mission helps companies achieve their goals. Missions help teams to make fast decisions. They make it clear that everyone in the company sees why you’re doing what you’re doing.

You can’t fake culture. There needs to be a perfect alignment between what you think, what you say and what you do.

Oana Iordachescu,
Global Talent Acquisition Manager, Tech&Product Diversity Advocate, Criteo

A start-up is essentially a business that focuses on fast growth and operates in insane uncertainty. In this space, success is a combination of vision and execution, both driven by a group of people who bond over scope and culture.

“Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” Sam Rayburn

This is one of those strong quotes you will remember from The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle. Coyle writes about building organisational culture, but opens with the etymology of the Latin word “cultus”, which means “care”.

Moving fast and caring are usually clashing notions. As the 4th industrial revolution has come upon us, the cult image of fast-growing businesses, with their drummed up successes and hushed flops, combined with the birth of VCs, incubators, and crowdsourcing has led to a competition like never before.

Today, a successful entrepreneur requires a certain combination of clear vision, and an astute sense of the implicit dynamics and connectedness to the team behind. They will be recognized as authentic when openness, honesty, and steady beliefs are the constant behind any interaction.

Harvard Business Review has called authentic leadership the gold standard of leadership.

1. Showcase desired exceptional behaviour

Exceptional behaviour is formed by challenging the status quo with respect to the way things have been done for a long time and creating new rituals on the team or department level that translate the big-picture vision.

Creating a culture of exceptional behaviour means focusing on relentless innovation while harnessing individual creativity. Speed and margins are important, but they will multiply by elevating everyone’s expectations of what good skill or behaviour means.

To create a culture of high performance, creating alignment between teams is crucial. As such, companies need to provide a direct line of feedback between employees and leaders. Authentic culture is always built from the top down. And decision-makers need to use that feedback into the way the business operates to nurture high-performing and engaged employees.

2. Make people feel welcome (there is strength in diversity)

The hiring process, your onboarding, communication, growth and promotions, talent management programs, and goal setting need to be a high-intensity feedback loop.

Employees are your first source of truth most of the time when it comes to the quality of your products or services, whether they are clients themselves or the first receivers of client information.

A Salesforce report shows that employees who feel their voices are being heard are five times as likely to feel empowered to perform their best work.

What is company culture schema

Creating a space for employees to express themselves will determine if they are engaged and willing to share critical insights. Only then the curiosity of how you can improve the organization together will offer value.

3. Align language with action

While the water cooler moments have their value, in an ever-changing nature of work that is more fast-paced, more global, and more layered, creating the same known universe is critical and can be done only through consistency.

That PR memo needs to be communicated internally first, and re-organization needs to be explained using the same arguments, no matter where they come from — that anti-discrimination or sexual harassment charges need to be investigated, and that performance or product feedback is valuable only if followed up with actionable items.

It is easier said than done because for all the values above to create an authentic culture, they can easily be stifled by behaviours that break the stride of even the most promising businesses.

One of the biggest obstacles in scaling is the attachment to legacy.

Psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman and cognitive and mathematical psychologist Amos Tversky bring to light the concept of loss aversion, that can be expressed in certain dimensions by sunk-cost fallacy, status quo bias or the endowment effect, which summarized would sound like “losses loom larger than gains.”

The prospect theory which drives the phenomenon of loss aversion showcases how people make decisions based on the prospects of a decision (essentially, the potential value of losses and gains) rather than on the final outcome.

This really just means that when people have lost money, they’re willing to take more risks in the hope of recouping the loss. Similarly, when they’ve already profited, they’re more cautious to not lose their gain.

Loss Aversion Schema

In the start-up life, change seems the only constant. Getting comfortable with the status quo is far from being an easy task and requires a certain elasticity of the cultural mindset.

At the same time, too much inconsistency, brutal changes, or even misplaced internal competition will confuse and create mistrust.

All recent studies on why people stay engaged in an organization, despite tremendous obstacles, lead us in the direction of shared authenticity.

When people feel confident that their peers live by the same values, they make bonds and connections that are sparked by curiosity, mutual respect, and meaningful communication. They find mentors, mentees, friends, they build purpose and rewarding interactions, and they bring value they feel proud of to a wider audience.

“Authentic culture is always built from the top down.”

Oana Iordachescu Avatar

Oana Iordachescu, is experienced in scaling recruitment for tech unicorns. Public speaker on gender diversity and tech talent communities creation. Avid coffee drinker.

Willem van Roosmalen,
Founder and Creative Director, Homerun

Why do we need authenticity to thrive?

There’s always authenticity in a company’s culture, where it gets off, is in communication. Many founders and HR managers don’t think they have a culture, or their culture is good enough, which is a problem in itself. But instead of working on their culture or uncovering what theirs is, they think they can fix it with communication.

What happens is that their messaging around their employer brand become aspirational, which can turn out to be plain misleading (and therefore not authentic), which damages the employer brand because there’s a too big of a gap between the actual experience of working at a company, and what was promised.

Is there any framework leaders/entrepreneurs can swear by to build better teams? Outline a few key points that would make a sustainable framework.

I haven’t come across a framework that any company can use to build better teams. I think it all boils down to spending time and energy on your employees. That’s my framework. Time and energy. A lot of it. For every company a different framework, process and output works better, that’s why it’s up to the entrepreneurs to find out what works for their unique situation, which can be found out by spending huge amounts of time and energy on it :)

What are the challenges team face that slows them down from scaling or thriving?

The vision, the direction of the company and the energy that’s connected to a small team often gets lost in the heat of growth. Employees leave because they don’t feel connected to the founder’s vision anymore, their day to day work gets disconnected from the overall company. They become islanders and lose faith in the company as a whole.

Showcase one example of success driven by inclusivity.

A diverse team brings in so many more valuable insights during the research phase of any project — insights otherwise overlooked and missed out on, which directly impacts the value of a solution to a problem.

“There’s always authenticity in a company’s culture, where it gets off, is in communication.”

Willem van Roosmalen Avatar

Willem van Roosmalen, Co-founder of Homerun. Rooted in creative culture, Homerun is a hiring software for creative and digital-first companies to attract, review and hire talent.

Culture at the heart of your company becomes a part of you. Culture will ideally be expressed rather than created. It should exist naturally within us, our co-founders, our team. Its expression should also be natural and selective.

Radical Transparency and Open-Mindedness

It's important for companies to prioritize openness and making employees more active in the decision-making process.

This was explored by Slack, which did a study on what it really takes to be considered successful.

Slack 3 pillars successful teams
Source: Trust, Tools, and Teamwork: What Workers Want

One company that encompasses these values is Buffer, which is known for practicing radical transparency. The company’s leadership styles became viral when they publicly shared their centralized dashboard, where anyone can find links to how money is spent, their revenue in real-time, each team member’s salary and the formula to determine it, a breakdown of equity for each employee, and information about their venture capital financing.

Qualtrics is also known for values like transparency as they have a system of company-wide objectives that everyone adds to and are available to all, including notes on every meeting and board meeting as well as weekly emails about what each person plans to get done.

The culture at Netflix preaches “radical candor and transparency” among its highest company values. According to a popular article in WSJ, transparency, autonomy, and a rigorous adherence to super high standards are the company’s ingredients of success.

Another great example is Ray Dalio's life mantra, which revolves around transparency and it can be seen in his experience of building a successful company, Bridgewater: a culture of tremendous achievement, combined with a determined effort to see, and deal with, the truth of things. The first chapter under “Life Principles” is “Embrace Reality and Deal With It”.

In his book, Principles: Life and Work, Dalio shares how important “radical transparency” is for success.

“Embracing radical truth and radical transparency will bring more meaningful work and more meaningful relationships.”
— Ray Dalio

Best known for his amazing performance in the stock market for decades, Ray Dalio is the founder of the world’s biggest hedge fund firm, Bridgewater Associates, which manages $160 billion.

“I want independent thinkers who are going to disagree” he says “The most important things I want are meaningful work and meaningful relationships. And I believe that the way to get those is through radical truth and radical transparency. In order to be successful, we have to have independent thinkers — so independent that they’ll bet against the consensus. You have to put your honest thoughts on the table. Then, the best ideas rise to the top.”

In a TEDx Talk, Dalio shares a story on how an employee called him out for a poor performance in a meeting.

“From this particular situation, one can easily discern that transparency is a double-edged sword: you have to be willing to engage in thoughtful disagreements to build a culture of trust and openness.”

If, like us, becoming the best version of yourself and building a thriving company culture are essential to you, then we highly recommend reading Ray Dalio's book Principles: Life and Work – you'll find it infinitely valuable.

Here are some of our favorites extracts:

  • "Good principles are effective ways of dealing with reality."

  • "Understand your ego barrier. When I refer to your “ego barrier”, I’m referring to your subliminal defense mechanisms that make it hard for you to accept your mistakes and weaknesses."

  • "Successful organizations have cultures in which evidence-based decision-making is the norm rather than the exception."

  • "Radical open-mindedness is the ability to effectively explore different points of view and different possibilities without letting your ego or your blind spots get in your way."

  • "Create a Culture in which it is okay to make mistakes and unacceptable not to learn from them."

  • "Self-reflection is the quality that most differentiates those who evolve quickly from those who don’t."

Pete Prowitt,
Director of Sales, Loom, ex-Intercom

Building a culture of transparency has to start from the leadership level and cascade down. If execs showcase their own vulnerabilities and embrace a transparent culture, it will carry over throughout an organization. This should impact the way you talk about your performance, progress, and challenges in a truly refreshing way.

Acknowledging that no person, product or company is perfect is step one, and this kind of candor will carry through to your customers. With a culture of transparency in place, it becomes OK to acknowledge a gap in your offering or a miss in a prior engagement, which helps you get to the solution stage faster.

Think about the term “know-it-all.” Celebrating knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom are characteristics we admire. However, if you call someone a “know-it-all,” you’re insulting them. Why? Because no one actually knows everything, and to pretend you do shows a lack of self-awareness.

Imagine being able to lean into your product’s gaps earlier with customers and be able to answer the question, “Should we continue working together?” faster. How many poor-fit customers would that disqualify? Will your ideal customers trust you more? Will your sales reps better focus their efforts toward the right customers?

Authenticity and transparency are vital to your long-term success, and this starts from the top. As a leader, encourage your sales team and broader organization to acknowledge faults, embrace being their authentic selves, and share these values with your customers. Show your hand early and often with customers, and remember that great partnerships are built on trust — not bluffs.

“If execs showcase their own vulnerabilities and embrace a transparent culture, it will carry over throughout an organization.”

Pete Prowitt Avatar

Pete Prowitt is a Director of Sales & Success at Loom. Before Loom, he lead teams of sales relationship managers at Intercom. Based in Oakland, Pete and his wife have one child and a bossy dog.

Radical Candor

The concept of leadership has transformed dramatically and if an organization wants to succeed, its leaders must really care about its employees and challenge them at the same time.

By definition, “Radical Candor is the ability to Challenge Directly and show you Care Personally at the same time. Radical Candor really just means saying what you think while also giving a damn about the person you’re saying it to.”

Kim Scott, Author of Radical Candor, has been an advisor at Dropbox, Qualtrics, Twitter, and several other Silicon Valley companies and spent years distilling her experiences into insightful ideas that organizations can use to help teams love their jobs and do great work.

For leaders or companies that want to adopt this concept, Scott shares a framework that goes as follows: if the vertical axis is caring personally and the horizontal axis is challenging directly, then the feedback should fall in the upper right-hand quadrant.

Radical Candor
Source: Radical Candor — The Surprising Secret to Being a Good Boss

According to Scott, successful companies forge a culture of radical candor — creating bullshit-free zones where people love their work and collaborating with team members.

As humans, we often care without challenging, which leads to ‘ruinous empathy’ and bad ideas, or challenge without empathy, which results in ‘obnoxious aggression’ instead.

The worst possible scenario is when we do not challenge people directly and we also don’t care about them — that causes ‘manipulative insincerity’ and lands us straight into trouble.

Radical Candor happens when people develop the ability to challenge ideas, concepts, proposals directly and productively while demonstrating personal care for the person they are giving/receiving feedback from.

When we create an internal culture where people truly care for one another, this attitude naturally gets passed onto our customers, too.

Empathy

Putting yourself in your peers’ shoes makes a huge difference in business.

Think about the questions employees, customers, stakeholders, and investors would ask when considering our business, products, brand, and marketing strategies. By looking at things through a different lens, we can better understand how to reach out and connect with the people who matter to our business.

Questions have great power for businesses today. Building a meaningful workplace culture that encourages asking questions can be of great value to our business. Employees and leaders who ask the right questions are more engaged, think more creatively, and in the end, have the ability to power innovation.

Recognizing the power of questions and fostering behaviour that encourages curiosity and inquiry can help our business compete in shifting markets, and even help ready our organization for growth. So, let's use questions to fuel innovation and design our business to thrive in today’s world.

Saskia H. Herrmann,
Service Designer, Researcher and Coach, The Empathy Game

Tuning in for Success

Leaders who fail to practice empathy will cease to be relevant.

The nature of work is changing; younger generations have different expectations. More and more people want to create value and have impact. What that impact looks like, is a whole other discussion.

It’s becoming clearer that an individualistic approach with an individualistic reward system cannot be consolidated with the insight that working across teams makes for more creative and innovative ideas.

So if we take the points that people work best in teams, want to be acknowledged for who they are, and create value in the world: who will lead these teams? And, what does a leader need to bring with them to lead well?

This is where I’d like to challenge some damaging perceptions of what leadership should be. There’s this perception that as a great leader you need to know everything, or that being an innovator means only moving fast and breaking things, irrespective of the costs along the way.

The start-up scene fetishises figures like Zuckerberg, Besos, and Musk (who all happen to be heterosexual white men). And, what is it that you see? They have built empires. They have exorbitant wealth. They have greatly impacted people’s lives worldwide. They are very controversial figures and there are many facets to endlessly debate about them.

But what I want to highlight is that when we place these men on a pedestal, we reduce the definition of what makes a successful leader in the business world. And this is exactly what the younger generations challenge.

Challenging the assumption of equating monetary gain with success, makes space to acknowledge the humanity in the system.

You don’t only want to make a buck, but you also want people to feel good and not burn out.

You don’t only want to make a buck, but you also care not to destroy our planet.

You don’t only want to make a buck, but you also want to contribute value to society with what you’re doing.

You get the gist.

A new definition of success is possible when you are open to see the world without dollar signs in your eyes.

Empathy is a key skill for leaders in the world where there is space for a new kind of success. And we’re starting to see proof of this.

People stick around in a job when they feel acknowledged and appreciated. People do well when they can be themselves, and are not treated differently. People are more creative when they work with people who are unalike.

Things made by a diverse group of people means that the outcome is relevant to more people. They not only stick around, but they also do their work much better and are happier. People on the outside see the happy camper and they want to join.

This environment does not happen by accident. This environment is created by leaders who lead by example. The environment above describes aspects of employee retention, diversity and inclusion, relevant products and services, mental health and attracting new talent. The extent to which this environment is fostered, is often not calculated into the profit and loss statement, yet it ironically presents an economic imperative.

When leaders practice empathy, they redefine success to collaboratively creating value while acknowledging each other’s humanity.

We created the Empathy Game to connect people. The game facilitates listening with intent and opens up the cinema of each other’s mind. The game helps people to practice tuning into each other’s experiences.

“Leaders who fail to practice empathy will cease to be relevant.”

Saskia H. Herrman Avatar

Saskia H. Herrmann, devised The Empathy Game, a tool for teams to tune into each other’s experiences. Empathy is a skill that can be practiced and improved.

Inclusivity

According to Buffer, inclusion is the environment that we create in order to collaborate, support, and respect differences.

Do we need to change the culture and systems that support our working lives? The answer is oftentimes yes but the question is how.

Let's start with the idea of an environment which thrives. This is often the result of innovation. And at the core, innovation has always been about coming up with good ideas by challenging the status quo and finding solutions to problems by adopting different viewpoints.

But innovation comes from a deeper place. Its foundation is the very inclusivity that so many companies adopt as culture must-haves.

In the end, promoting inclusivity in entrepreneurship will most likely spur greater economic and societal value by weaving creativity, divergent and convergent thinking to any company's fabric.

So in the end, creating an inclusive workplace isn't just "nice" - it's impactful across the board.

As an example, research has shown that socially diverse groups (those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogeneous groups.

One area to consider is inclusive design, which helps companies create products that serve people from many backgrounds.

When designing products and brands, accessibility is considered a key objective to connect with audiences. But inclusion goes beyond what's possible – it enables people from diverse backgrounds to access products and designs in ways that are directly related to their identity.

A classic example here is reading a book in Braille, which uses a tactile writing system and can be used by people who are visually impaired.

This is important because it forces us to let go of biases and build products that are truly universal.

While journalistic ethics have long been a core part of the industry, the same focus on bias and balance has only been a recent topic for discussion in the design world, at least in those terms.

Microsoft has an inclusive design kit and a general design strategy centered around the philosophy that designing for the most vulnerable among us will result in better products and experiences for all.

Google focuses on accessibility practices for their developers for the same reasons. Industry leaders like John Maeda and Kat Holmes have built their careers on speaking on the importance of diversity in the field, and how human-centered design should encompass potential users of all different races, genders, and abilities.

Airbnb has launched a toolkit for designers called ‘Another Lens’ that aims to minimize bias in design. It comprises a series of questions that guide designers in creating products and services that will be beneficial, as well as inclusive for most people.

The company worked with journalism start-up News Deeply to establish their main areas of focus, which became the three sections of the toolkit: “Balance your bias”; “Consider the opposite”; and “Embrace a growth mindset”.

Airbnb — Another Lens
Source: Airbnb — Another Lens

Each card is informed by psychological principles, such as confirmation bias, or the tendency to favor information that reinforces one’s existing beliefs.

To get designers to consider what their biases might be and how to make sure they are challenging them and incorporating other’s perspectives, each section of the toolkit is broken down into five questions.

These range from “What are my lenses?” to “Who might disagree with what I’m designing?” and “What am I challenging as I create this?”

Employee Breakdown of key tech companies
Source: Information is beautiful

In content, editorial styles are continuously evolving to reflect shifts in needs, sensibilities, technologies, and markets, so it’s important to write in such a way that reflects the audience we are writing for.

MailChimp is one example that has clear guidelines for writing about people with compassion.

Sprout also emphasizes the need to be careful about the bias that can creep in the smallest word choices. The company takes extra care to be cognizant of the impact their words have to make people feel seen, valued, respected and welcome.

It’s clear — we need to promote critical thinking about language and ways we can use conscious words, portrayals, framing, and representation to empower instead of limit.

06.
Authenticity in Growth

Growth has become the entrepreneurial mantra of the early 21st century, resulting in the creation of new tech giants, new industries, and an era in which online community and content have redefined how we live, learn, and work.

So the question is — is relentlessly pursuing growth good for business?

Despite the obsession with moving faster, a study made by Slack shows that researchers from UC Berkeley and Stanford who explored growth at more than 3,000 startups found that premature scaling was the most common cause of failure.

As Julie Zhuo states, “I tell my team that when the discussion becomes “should we ship this mediocre thing, or should we spend the additional time that we don’t have to make it better?” the battle has already been lost. The thing we failed to do weeks or months ago was cutting aggressively enough. Either this thing matters, in which case make it great — don’t make it mediocre. Or it doesn’t, in which case, don’t work on it in the first place.”

Erwan Derlyn,
Independant Growth Marketing Consultant

In the last few years, authenticity has become quite a trend in marketing. Every expert blog posts seem to mention authenticity has a must-have in your strategy.

But what does it mean to be authentic? Can it actually help you to drive growth? How does it all work? First of all, authenticity is a psychology concept and its definition varies widely in different cultures. Authenticity is deeply connected to self-awareness and self-actualization. For me, business authenticity has a lot to do with consistency and your brand’s reason for being.

Seth Godin expresses it perfectly in this blog post “We call a brand or a person authentic when they’re consistent when they act the same way whether or not someone is looking. Someone is authentic when their actions are in alignment with what they promise ”.

Being an authentic brand has nothing to do with being extra transparent, or over-sharing content on social media. Being an authentic brand is about standing for something and stick to it — regardless of trends, market evolution, or technology changes. For example, Patagonia’s mission statement and core values haven’t changed since its creation in 1973.

So how can you use authenticity for your brand?

  • Communicate clearly your vision and mission on your website (eg. The Pursuit of Less by ASKET)

  • Use these core values as a common thread across channels (eg. ASKET uses this theme in their newsletters, uses the hashtag #meaningfulessentials on Instagram)

  • Become a thought leader within this field (eg. ASKET's co-founder, August Bard Bringéus, consistently talk about slowing down fashion in interviews.)

Authenticity is not another shiny tool you sign up for and add to your marketing stack. It’s an active choice and a long-term commitment that will define your brand for years to come.

“Being an authentic brand is about standing for something and stick to it — regardless of trends, market evolution, or technology changes.”

Erwan Derlyn Avatar

Erwan Derlyn is an independent growth marketing consultant based in Stockholm. He was previously part of the growth teams at iZettle (acquired by Paypal) and Hem.com. You can subscribe to his monthly newsletter on growth marketing.

Start with the problem

"Start with the problem" is probably the most common piece of advice we can receive when it comes to launching our startup or building a new product feature. Why? Because a solution can only be as good as our understanding of the problem we're addressing.

And yet most companies fail at it.

Having an in-depth understanding of the problem takes time, hard work, plus tracking its progress is not very straightforward. On the other hand, when working on the solution, it is fairly easy for a team to report the progress by showing the wireframes or the beta features built.

Setting a timeframe to understand the problem can also vary deeply from one project to another.

In short, working on the problem is often intangible while working on the solution is more tangible work. And, in the current startup culture of "get sh*t done", it becomes obvious that people and companies would rather spend their time working on the solution than on the problem.

In his article, Great PMs don't spend their time on solutions, Paul Adams, SVP of Product at Intercom outlines 1) what looks like a standard product development process and, more interestingly, 2) where most teams spend their time on. Here are his takes on it:

"Imagine all the time you use on a project was contained in 100 units. So all the PM work, the designers, researchers, analysts, engineers, etc. How would it break down?

For most product development teams I know outside of Intercom it looks like this:

Product Development Process - Schema 1

A little upfront work deciding to prioritise the problem, then defining it, then a bigger chunk of time designing, and then most of the time spent building the thing.

Sometimes however, it looks like this:

Product Development Process - Schema 2

At Intercom, how we spend our time looks more like this:

Product Development Process - Schema 3

40% of our 100 units spent before we've even started designing anything. We obsess about problem prioritisation and problem definition. I mean obsess.

I drive our people crazy sometimes interrogating whether we really truly deeply understand the problem we're attempting to solve. It is highly encouraged for our PMs to openly share and debate early definitions of the problems we're defining."

And he justifies this — often intentional  —  omission for defining the problem by the fact that it's hard work, it's wrongly viewed as unexciting, it can be hard to justify the initial output.

So, the questions now are 1) how to make that change happen within our organization? and, 2) how to structure a coherent work process around defining the problem?

First, it all starts with a shift in mindset, instead of assuming that our ideas and intuitions are correct based on our years of experience and embarking on designing a solution, try to prove ourselves wrong and invalidate our hypotheses.

Start thinking it that way: every time we invalidate one of our hypotheses through customer development research, we saved our company dozens or even hundreds of hours in building a product no one will buy.

Then, to build credibility around the process of defining the problem it is essential to approach it more like a science than an art.

Although it is hard for facts to determine a clear beginning and end in the process of defining the problem as, by definition, we can always learn more each time we talk to an additional potential customer, we can still establish a scope, a timeframe and a framework for it.

The good news is that there are already plenty of great resources out there to help you structure your work. Here are some of our favourite ones:

In her book, Cindy Alvarez defines a 5-step process for lean customer development:

  • Forming a hypothesis

  • Finding potential customers to talk to

  • Asking the right questions

  • Making sense of the answers

  • Figuring out what to build to keep learning

Also, she proposes a subtle way to state results from running customer development to your management team:

We learned ________ So we didn't build [feature/partnership/new product] Which saved us ____ time!

Now it's our turn to start changing how we spend our time and shift our mindset from making for making's sake to a more value-centric way to make things.

Thinking growth prior to having a handful of delighted customers is a recipe for failure

In his famous article, Paul Graham advises companies to do things that don’t scale. His argument is that doing things on a smaller scale at the beginning lays the foundation for success.

Fast growth has become the metric of success for many companies. But while growth is a critical metric, it has to be understood within a wider context.

Graham explains that growth comes in three phases — starting with a period of slow or no growth. And rather than something to avoid, it enables long-term success and sustainable business.

But before moving too fast, companies need to learn to focus on quality, strengthen their products, understand customers, identify the market, build a stellar team, and establish trust.

So, Paul Graham associates "doing things that don't scale" as a way to focus on quality prior to volume and scalability. The question, now, is how to measure the quality of a product? The answer is simple, retention is the key!

This is non-controversial. Like an irrefutable fact. Building a sustainable business goes hand in hand with having a high retention rate.

Brian Balfour explains Why Retention is King of Growth Strategy:

"The point is, every improvement that you make to retention also improves all of these other things - virality, LTV, payback period. It is literally the foundation to all of growth, and that's really why retention is the king."

If at this point, you are still not convinced of the crucial role of focusing on having a few delighted customers prior to dumping money into your acquisition channels then have a look at YC's Essential Startup Advice checklist. One-third (out of 22) of their checklist advice is referring to that point:

  • Build something people want

  • Do things that don't scale

  • Find 10–100 customers who love your product

  • Write code - talk to users

  • Growth is the result of a great product not the precursor

  • Don't scale your team/product until you have built something people want

  • Pre-product market fit - do things that don't scale: remain small/nimble

And if this sounds like an obvious thing for you, you might be surprised to realize that of nearly 500 people who responded to Hiten Shah about who owns retention at their company, the top response (33%) went for "No one owns retention."

Louis-Xavier Lavallee,
Co-Founder, Growth.Design

How can authenticity and growth co-exist?

At Growth.Design, we built an audience from 0 to 20,000+ with word-of-mouth as our main acquisition channel in less than a year. Here are the guidelines we used:

1. Connect on a human level with users.

When we first started getting new subscribers, we reached out to all of them manually until we had 100+ new emails coming in every day (we’re only 2!). We then tested hundreds of different copies until people started replying with meaningful introductions.

This first contact has proven to be highly valuable in the long run. You’ll soon see why...

Now, the first outreach process with new subscribers is automated, but we still manually reach out to some! This gives us the chance to…

2. Understand why they “hired” you.

We take pride in reading and replying to all our fans’ messages, because it’s the best way we found to stay connected with the people that benefit from our product.

It helps us understand why new subscribers like what we do and how they use it in their work. Knowing the context of how someone uses your product makes a big difference in how you approach design problems.

3. Ask how you can improve.

People are good at giving feedback. While it goes against the Henry Ford mindset, users can spark your growth, once they feel they’re part of the journey.

Our most liked features actually came from conversations with our community. The key advantage is when you have a good understanding of why they “hired” you. It helps you read “between the lines” and put things in perspective.

4. Automate your user research.

As Paul Adams mentioned in his article, spending more time on the problem is critical for Intercom.

However, you can’t figure out user problems alone. You need them.

That’s where the initial contact pays off. User research becomes a lot easier when they know who you are. Eventually, you can even automate your research and save tons of time by taking the “logistics” out of the equation, which can be feared by stakeholders.

Ethan Eismann, Slack’s VP Design, created a “shared” slack where they constantly test new features with the community.

No more user hunt, gift cards, forms, etc. Just human conversations.

Remember… You’ll get more insights in 5 phone calls than in 500 survey responses.

5. Growth is a mindset.

Unfortunately, growth was given a bad reputation because people promoted hacks (some still do) instead of tests. Tests are the best way for a business to learn rapidly, whether they are wins or failures.

Now, one of the major problems we see is teams having a hard time “trying” new things.

Dan (co-founder) & I run tests every month, and I’d be lying if we were always able to predict the results correctly. Sometimes, “sure wins” don’t perform as expected... and that gives us a chance to look at the problem with a new lens and find even better solutions.

If you can align your team around this mindset of testing things out, even when you’re “sure” of the solution, you’ll go much further than you ever thought.

6. Include users in your process.

Finally, even with all the research in the world, you’ll still miss a few details. That’s why testing with small groups can minimize frustrated users and create even more loyal fans.

Now you have to be mindful of who you choose. That’s when knowing your audience well comes into play again. As Brian Balfour explains in this article, test new features with the people who suffer from the problem you’re trying to solve first.

Releasing to targeted niches will give you time to refine the experience until it’s ready to go mainstream. This way, you’ll slowly create the most meaningful experiences in your industry.

What’s more authentic than including your users in the creation process?

“Growth is a mindset not a number in a spreadsheet.”

Louis-Xavier Lavallee Avatar

Louis-Xavier Lavallee, Co-Founder, Growth.Design. For the past 10 years, Louis-Xavier has been studying how the best products and services are changing user behaviors and re-shaping our interactions as a society.

Richard Makara,
Growth Marketing Engineer, Smartly.io

Test Before You Scale — Seriously & Systematically

Perhaps you’ve read that the newest trick on the marketing block is a chatbot that will capture and process information for you as well as deliver notifications to the sales team. Or perhaps, word on the street is that Artificial Intelligence will solve our problems, and everybody should have AI for their business. Whatever the scenario, the typical first mistake I have seen people make is to assume that you need to go from 0 to 100 in one leap.

Let’s take the chatbot as our example.

Empirically speaking, there is a high probability that there’s value in adding either a chatbot or a live chat on my website - even before I test it myself. I know that because companies like Drift and Intercom have numerous case studies out there with amazing results. Even HubSpot has a built-in chat flow functionality nowadays.

OK, we just decided to experiment with chatbots - next step is to set up an elaborate chat-flow or enable live chat worldwide that is connected to all of your sales reps, right?

Not quite - There are still things I do not know:

  • Are visitors even remotely interested in chatting to me?

  • Do they want to chat with a real person?

  • Or simply get directed to relevant content?

  • Are they willing to leave their contact details over chat?

  • Are these people random visitors, relevant prospects, or clients?

The logical next step is to add some proxy metrics to our questions, and one step at a time to start collecting data. The goal is, simply speaking, to figure out:

"Based on initial data, is it worth pursuing this project" — Yes/No

If yes, “Based on the data, what direction should I take my chat”

Let’s look at the very first question. Will people open the chat, to begin with?

For me, I’d simply look at “unique visitor session to started chat” rate. If the number is high, good stuff — I can proceed to test out what kind of content the bot should present.

If it’s not, I can try a few things to up the rate:

  • Change welcome message → from “Hello let us know if you have any questions” to “Hello, let me help you find what you’re looking for”

  • Change placement of chat (pages) → from a few specific pages to all pages on the website

  • Visual aspects → from a small notification that looks like the rest of your site to a bright red box that yells at you

Once I’m confident I have a good-enough answer (note: at this stage, I’m not looking for statistical significance, just directional), I can move on to the next question. By the end of this process, I will have built up a few assumption-based funnels, and collected data for each step.

I can also stop or change direction if I notice that some parts are not working as expected. For the following questions, I would follow the same steps:

  • Create an assumption

  • Choose a proxy metric that you believe will give you an answer

  • Pump data in

  • Modify based on performance

  • Be ready to make “kill or continue” decisions.

And most importantly, if I approach a scalable project like this in a systematic way, I can avoid the worst marketing trap ever: “We tried X, it simply didn’t work for our company.”

What that line is really saying, “We pressed a few buttons and hoped for the best. It didn’t work”

“Test Before You Scale — Seriously & Systematically.”

Richard Makara Avatar

Richard Makara is a Triangle Shaped Marketer. Growth Marketing Engineer at Smartly.io. Grandfather of Junction, Europe’s Leading Hackathon.

Think out of the box

Being authentic in growth also means sticking to our principles, even if it means standing against conventional wisdom. And in the tech world, there is plenty of popular belief.

Basecamp is the very first company that comes to mind when we talk about "thinking out of the box". There's so much to learn from them and we cannot recommend highly enough to subscribe to their blog.

Jason Fried (Co-founder & CEO) and David Heinemeier Hansson (Co-Founder & CTO) are emblematic and highly opinionated persons who never hesitate to voice out their views. They made their life purpose to keep things as simple as possible in everything they do. And as Steve Jobs stated "Simple can be harder than complex".

One of their biggest stands is going against the common belief that in order to be considered a tech company we must think growth first and, only then, start figuring out how to build a profitable business.

Here's an extract from their story and one of their most popular blog posts:

"We're also big believers in business 101. We don't spend more than we earn, we don't waste money on things that don't matter, we don't give away everything for free and hope we'll figure it out before we run out of cash. We're in business to stay in business, and we have 15 profitable years in a row to back it up."

What we found the most interesting with Basecamp's example is that in everything they do, they always aim to do things differently from high-level strategic decisions to more executive ones.

Strategically, they always take this approach toward reducing the number of features inside their product rather than expanding product offerings. Same with their pricing, they use a unique flat fee as opposed to the widespread per-user fee used in the SaaS industry.

Recently, Ryan Singer (Head of Product Strategy) released Shape Up, a free online book, that covers their entire product development process. He reveals their framework toward product development. It starts with their six-week development cycle as opposed to the two-week industry standard.

"Six weeks is long enough to build something meaningful start-to-finish and short enough that everyone can feel the deadline looming from the start, so they use the time wisely. The majority of our new features are built and released in one six-week cycle."

Another interesting concept is what they call "setting appetites instead of estimates". In software development, the common practice is to make a design first and then ask the engineering team for a guesstimate on how long that would take to build the feature based on its design. At Basecamp they do it the other way around.

"An appetite is completely different from an estimate. Estimates start with a design and end with a number. Appetites start with a number and end with a design. We use the appetite as a creative constraint on the design process."

Basecamp's success isn't shaped by the latest trends or what other companies are doing. It's completely reliant on their faculty to think out of the box and look at the world through their own prism.

In his article How an Anti-Growth Mentality Helped Basecamp Grow to Over 2 Million Customers, Hiten Shah shares the 3 Key Lessons Learned from Basecamp:

  • Make the decision about whether to take funding based on your specific company, not the advice of others.

  • Find a better way to build things.

  • Underdo your competition.

07.
Final Notes

Connecting the dots

When it comes to building an authentic brand, we should start from the premise that successful organisations get to where they are because they know the journey of growth is a long process.

An authentic organisation is not built on the habit of saying “yes” to anything that comes its way. In fact, saying no is crucial if we want to achieve quality.

The truth is, in tech, we’re eager for any chance to pursue growth.

This is the case when we build companies without setting clear values, principles, a story, and vision; when we write content that ends up being a number in a monthly quota; or when we implement growth strategies without considering theories like Paul Graham’s argument of doing things on a smaller scale.

But what makes an authentic brand? We create something qualitative when we lay the right foundations (knowledge and experience) and stick to our principles.

Clear guidelines help us set expectations for our clients, managers and teams and in the end, creating guidelines and principles help us build consistency — and this is the key to simplifying what we need to do and becoming more genuine in our work.

Iterate from there. Experiment. Evolve. And never forget to address these questions:

  • Who is the person you are trying to engage?

  • What challenges do they face?

  • What product, service or solution will solve their core problem?

🙌

Whew! Looks like you made it to the very end. We know this was an incredibly long read but we genuinely hope that you enjoyed it.

Putting this playbook together was a project very dear to us and we're very proud of all the work, ideas and insights everyone put into it.

We hope you'll come back for more quality content which we don't often publish, but when we do, we make sure we give our best to make it valuable.

In case you don't know us, we're the people who also run GrowthTalk, a boutique content agency which helps brands grow through high-quality content and bespoke content strategy.

Drop us a note if you're curious to know more. We're a friendly bunch!