How to practice quality in your startup?

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(This article was written for IT magazine and was published in Feb 2009 issue. Original article can be founder here)

These thoughts about quality crystallized in my mind while I was reading Robert Pirsig‘s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values”. There was such a rush of thoughts in my head that I had to keep the book away and start writing down my thoughts.

Pirsig offers this definition for Quality:

“Quality is a characteristic of thought and statement that is recognized by a non thinking process. Because definitions are a product of rigid, formal thinking, quality cannot be defined.”

But then below the definition on the blackboard, he wrote,

“But even though Quality cannot be defined, you know what Quality is”

Startups are essentially units of passionate, committed, and somewhat foolish people trying to accomplish things which would normally be considered far out of reach for them. The only way for the startups to make it across to the other side is by ‘practicing superior quality’, quality in all aspects of the startup:

  • Quality of the founding team
  • Quality of the idea
  • Quality of the execution
  • Quality of the product design
  • Quality of everything else being done in the startup…

Now the question really is, if ‘quality’ can not be defined, how does the startup practice it? The short simple answer is that Quality at a startup directly proportional to the:

  • Sense of quality of founder(s)
  • The discipline with which they follow it
  • The amount of pain they are ready to bear to ensure quality is practiced

The ‘sense of quality’ is not something one is born with, its something that comes with ‘care’.

Though the Google founders were not UI experts, they came up with a high quality search page design, because they deeply cared about the users experiences. They cared about keeping it simplistic and natural to how people would want to look for information. As a founder you must first of all ‘care deeply’ about all things that your company is doing. This ‘care’ will turn into the ‘sense of quality’, which will give you the ability to tell good quality from bad.

Evan Williams; the founder of blogger cared so deeply about the users of blogger, that he stayed on with the company as a single employee running servers, teaching himself stuff, writing code, talking to users, fixing bugs even when all other employees moved on, when the company had almost no money. He did not leave, he stayed on continuing to ensure quality experience to the users whom he cared about and prevailed. Blogger became Google’s first acquisition.

Similarly, the guys who designed the first spreadsheet ‘VisiCalc’ spent less time coding but a lot more time thinking to make it easy for people to use, to ‘make it natural’. They knew they were competing with ‘back of the envelope’. They cared about the users, cared about minimizing the number of clicks and steps that a user needs to go through for performing a function. And if that was not the case, they would have designed a product which would have sunk without a trace, like many other ‘low quality’ products.

Once the founders reach a point where they care about everything that matters, the next most important thing is they have to get ‘quality’ people onboard. They have to instill ‘care’ and teach the ‘quality’ to each of these guys.

How can founders/leaders teach quality?

Some of the points to keep in mind would be:

  • Understand that you are also learning the subject which you are teaching, so be open to questioning and changing your existing ideas and beliefs
  • Unless its science or math, never give rules to be followed
  • Provide a broad framework to help the guy get started, but make it clear that these are not rules, its just one representative framework. It can be wrong, can be changed, challenged and improved ( mental model )
  • Use real-life examples and case studies to understand and learn from the examples along with the person your are discussing it with
  • Evolve and further understand the model as you proceed
  • Also establish that learning for everyone is a continuous process, everyone is learning
  • Don’t try to arrive at rules / rigid patterns from past data or information
  • Finally, create adaptable mental models – which can handle randomness

Tim Brady, the first employee of Yahoo after David and Yang was obviously given the quality training by the founders, though he was a business guy and these guys where geeks, they managed to convey their care and sense of quality about various things.

Always remember, there is no single or fixed number of routes. There are as many routes as there are individual startups. So don’t follow rules. Make your own rules. ‘Care’ about every damn thing and ‘ensure highest level of quality’ in every task undertaken, every person hired, every product feature designed, every sales call made. Just be paranoid about quality and not let it go. It’s a tough thing to ask and that’s perhaps why there have been so far and few who have made it through.