What Jack Dorsey’s Square and Illuminant have in common: a central unifying principle

A view of the Golden Gate Bridge in cloud by Ramon LlorensiI make a habit of breaking for lunch every day I’m working at my desk. I always grab something good to eat and read something unconnected with my day-to-day work in progress. Today’s read was a corker.

What follows is another excellent piece of journalism by TechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld, detailing an all-hands meeting that Twitter founder Jack Dorsey recently held at his online payments startup company, Square.

Jack’s talk got me thinking about an aspect of the Illuminant Methodology that we haven’t previously disclosed publicly. Some thoughts on that part of the Illuminant way follow Erick’s piece, copied below:

Jack Dorsey & The Golden Gate Bridge

A recent Vanity Fair profile of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey ends with an anecdote about an inspiring speech he gave to the assembled staff at his new mobile payments startup, Square. The internal “TownSquare” meeting took place on his 34th birthday last November, and it is a remarkable statement by a young CEO who is finding his voice and trying to impart it onto his company. Fortunately, somebody captured the speech on video, which I’ve obtained and present to you above.

From author David Kirkpatrick’s Vanity Fair article:

Jack Dorsey has spent a lot of time thinking about what went wrong at Twitter. And as Square’s C.E.O., he bends over backward to be explicit, to communicate, to guide. He hosts a “town square” company meeting every Friday, where he talks about aspirations and values. . . .

One recent town-square meeting, in fact, was devoted to the aesthetic virtues of the Golden Gate Bridge. “We’re the only payments company in the world that’s concerned with design,” the Prada-clad Dorsey begins. He shows a dramatic photo of the bridge taken from atop one of its towers. “This is what I want to build. This is classy. This is inspiring. This is limitless. Every single aspect of this is gorgeous. . . . So your homework this weekend is to cross this bridge, think about that, and also think about how we take those lessons into doing what we do, which is carry every single transaction in the world.”

The 15-minute speech is succinct and to the point. Every startup founder should watch it. It is about design and building excellent products. “Everything we do here is design,” he says. It is about the importance of telling good stories through your products and editing them down to their core narrative. “We need to present one cohesive story to the world,” he notes.

Dorsey gets his point across, appropriately enough, by telling the story of the Golden Gate Bridge. Towards the end, he brings up a slide of another, extraordinarily ugly bridge, and asks, “What the hell were they thinking? . . . A lot of people in our industry, this is what they’re building. It’s terrible.” Then he goes back to a sweeping picture of the Golden Gate. “This is the bridge I want to cross.”

“And that’s really what it comes down to,” Dorsey says, “we want to design the beautiful and build the impossible.

He also points out, “One of the features of this bridge is it doesn’t fall down. Reliability is a feature.” Another lesson learned from Twitter. And, yes, Twitter wants Dorsey back and he may expand his role there, but after watching this video it is hard to imagine him ever leaving Square.

That said, it is also clear that he doesn’t think Square should be about him. It should be about the product. “Square is not going to be known by me, . . . It’s going to be known as Square. That’s what we want people to care about. We’re trying to push the products and the brand and our story above everything else.” He wants Square to be like Apple in terms of product focus, but without the CEO cult of personality. The full transcript is below.

Transcript

I want to talk about how we build things here, a little bit about the product, the work we do and the work we need to do. So, this is something I put on our Wiki a long time ago [shows slide], as one of our principles is to delight our users. But then I realized it’s more important to delight their users, which are their customers and payers. And the more we focus on that payer experience, the more we focus on really making that magical — and designing it. We win, our users win, and we get more users.

So, going back to a lot of Brian’s points, this is a big focus for us, we’re the only payments company in the world that’s concerned with design. We are all designers in this room, and that’s how we’re leading this company, through design.

So, how many of you have walked or driven across the Golden Gate Bridge? Almost everyone in the room. This is one of my favorite parts of living in San Francisco. This is astoundingly beautiful, and it’s not just beautiful because it looks pretty, it’s beautiful because of the challenge that everyone who built this bridge overcame.

So, if you go back and you look at how this bridge was built, this is what San Francisco looked like before the bridge. This was the Golden Gate. We called it the Golden Gate because San Francisco was known for gold rushes. People would come here, explore and risk everything they had to live in an environment where they might find gold, or might find work, or might open a store of some kind.

So, this is the Golden Gate, this is the fort, right on the point in the Presidio, and there’s this big divide between this fort and Marin, and a lot of people living in Tiburon and Sausalito would have to go all the way around the Bay, all the way up here to get around across the river, up by Richmond.

So, they needed something that was a little bit faster. The war was over, they weren’t using this fort much anymore, so, they decided to build a bridge. So, very simply they said we need to build a bridge here, and they got an architect. The architect had a vision, actually there are a few architects, but one person has incredibly taken credit for most of the work, which was recently rectified — it’s a fas

cinating Wikipedia article if you have the chance to read it.

So the architects designed this gorgeous bridge, but the problem with the Golden Gate is that this is an extremely tumultuous area, if you’ve ever sailed through this or taken a boat through this, the waves are immense. Or surfed through it, which is more dangerous. It’s a disaster, I mean all the weather of the Bay is being forced through this one single point. So, all these elements create this perfect storm of turbulence. It’s extremely deep in the middle and it’s an epic span, so this was not an easy challenge.

They got a bunch of amazing engineers, and they took it step by step and iterated and iterated and iterated. There was a lot of back and forth between the architects to make this beautiful opening into this gorgeous city that we live in. And what is possible? What is beautiful? What is possible? And that’s really what it comes down to … we want to design the beautiful and build the impossible.

And a lot of people think of design, when they hear the word design as visual, something that looks pretty. Design is not just visual, design is efficiency. Design is making something simple. Design is epic. Design is making it easy for a user to get from point A to point B.

Engineering is design. Every engineer in this room, every operator in this room, every customer service agent in this room, is a designer. Because you’re designing constantly the interaction that you have with your tools or with your users or with your customers, and you’re trying to bring efficiency and take all the thinking out of that process.

So, everything we do here is design. We always want to make the beautiful — to this point — Keith, two minutes before I was supposed to start this Town Square, told me, stop. I’ve got a mistake in my slides, I forgot to capitalize an “S”. I swear. That level of perfection is what we wanna achieve, because if we achieve that level of perfection — it’s gonna take a long time to do that, a lot of hours — but then our users see it immediately, without thinking. And that’s the important part. That’s what design is.

And look at this, this is gorgeous. I mean, just look at this bridge, it’s amazing what was achieved with resources they had in the time these folks had. Millions and millions of people go over this bridge, and one of the features of this bridge is it doesn’t fall down. Reliability is a feature. This is what Brian said earlier, availability, reliability, and staying up, that’s a feature and that’s a product, and it has to be well-designed and thought after and considered, and that’s what we’re doing.

I’ve often spoken to the editorial nature of what I think my job is, I think I’m just an editor, and I think every CEO is an editor. I think every leader in any company is an editor. Taking all of these ideas and you’re editing them down to one cohesive story, and in my case, my job is to edit the team, so we have a great team that can produce the great work and that means bringing people on and in some cases having to let people go. That means editing the support for the company, which means having money in the bank, or making money, and that means editing what the vision and the communication of the company is, so that’s internal and external, what we’re saying internally and what we’re saying to the world — that’s my job. And that’s what every person in this company is also doing. We have all these inputs, we have all these places that we could go — all these things that we could do — but we need to present one cohesive story to the world.

Brian said something very interesting to me a few weeks ago, he said, support and feedback is what our customers are telling us, and product is what we’re telling our customers. I think that’s an amazing, amazing statement. We have feedback loops, and then we speak something back, the product, this company, is what we’re telling the world.

So, on this point, ideas can come from anyone, and they can come anytime. So, we all have various directions that we want to take the company and sometimes those ideas come during a shower, sometimes they come when we’re walking, sometimes they come when we’re talking with other employees at the coffee store, and sometimes you just wanna build it — you just wanna get it done — and we want to support that.

If I want to go and create a screen saver that shows all the signatures that are coming into Square in realtime, and I’m gonna go spend the weekend doing that, and I’m gonna finish it to my satisfaction so that when I go back to the company and say look at what I did, this is amazing, this is beautiful and I’ve had a lot of fun building this. And instead of saying, you know, that’s cool but we didn’t do it as a team so let’s not use it right now. Instead, let’s figure out how to say, that’s awesome, now let’s figure out how to put it into production.

So, allowing folks to work on what they want and the strong ideas that they have at any point, and then figuring out how to build it into production, and speaking to that point of reliability as a feature. Ideas happen to individuals, they happen to groups, we should allow for all of it. We should take them all in and consider them. If we don’t act on an idea, then let’s put in on the shelf, don’t throw it away, just put it in the shelf, because we may use it later in a different way then what was originally intended. This gets us to become good storytellers, and that’s what we want to do. This is about the editorial.

As a lot of you know, this is one of my favorite magazines. [Shows The Economist] This magazine is very interesting. It’s actually a newspaper — out of London. If you look through this magazine, you’ll notice a few things. First, it has a beautiful unfolding. You open the first few pages, you get all the news around the world in brief, little, 140-character news bytes of what’s happening. You want to commit some more time, then you page through and you’ll see the briefings in half pages or pages, a little bit more on what’s going on in the world, about what you just read. If you want to commit even more to any direction or any topic that you find interesting, you can read the full articles, which are multiple pages. And then at the very back are the indicators, the economic indicators, of what various aspects of the economy are doing.

The other thing you notice about this is that there are no bylines at all, there are no names in here, not even the editor has a name, it’s The Economist, they’re building The Economist, they’re writing articles for The Economist.

The editor says, I want to write about Obama, and how he needs to step it up, it’s time. He gets 5 or 6 articles, edits them into one thing that he thinks, or she thinks, will sell the magazine and tell the best story, and that becomes the magazine. This is done with every single article that’s in the magazine. And effectively every single product and feature and aspect that we’re building to our company.

So, my point here is, this company is not going to be known by one person or by five people or by multiple people. It’s going to be known by the product that we put out. We, in the Valley, think that Steve Jobs is Apple. We see Apple and we think Steve Jobs. But the mainstream audience doesn’t know who the hell Steve Jobs is. They don’t really care. They know that the Nano works, they love it, and they want to buy the next one. They could care less what this old guy in the black turtle neck does. Square is not going to be known by me, it’s not going to be known as Keith’s company, it’s not gonna be known as any other individual’s company in here, it’s going to be known as Square.

That’s what we want people to care about, and that’s what we’re trying to push, we’re trying to push, we’re trying to push the products and the brand and our story above everything else. And if you ever see that not happening, then let’s fix it. Tell me about it, we’ll fix it. Kay will help.

So, building beautiful things, it’s not easy. You can give up easily. It’s not 9 to 5 job. This is a 9 to 5 bridge [shows new slide]. Everything about this bridge says do not cross me. First of all, I don’t trust that it’s going to stay up. It’s forcing me into these narrow lanes. It’s got this mile-per-hour limit. This does not inspire. This is not aspirational to anyone. This is not something I want to cross. This is not something I want to use. It’s not something that I look at and say, wow, that’s amazing, I mean wow, What the hell were they thinking?

And a lot of people in our industry, this is what they’re building. It’s terrible. This is the bridge I want to cross. [Shows Golden Gate] This is how I want to arrive at a destination. This is classy. This is limitless. This is inspiring. This is gorgeous. Every single aspect of this is gorgeous.

Think about all of the engineers and all of the architects and all of the people that drove rock to this bridge and their families and how happy and proud they are when they walk over this bridge and when they see this bridge in newspapers and they see it in movies and they are part of this bridge. That’s what we all want to feel. That’s what I want to feel, and I know everyone in this room wants to feel.

So, this is why design is important and this is why this coordination is important, and this is how we’re leading and building this company. So, your homework for the weekend is to cross this bridge, think about that, and then also think about how we take those lessons into doing what we want do, which is carry every single transaction in the world.

What Jack is talking about when he rhapsodises over “design” is what we call the “central unifying principle” in the Illuminant Methodology. The central unifying principle is that core element of a corporate identity which accurately (but abstractly) reflects the business’ culture, its methods, its approach. A central unifying principle is abstracted because it is a single word or phrase which must summarise the company’s DNA code — itself a fairly complex and diverse set of guidelines, targets and values.

I really liked Jack’s talk, as much for his willingness to raise the level of discussion around his enterprise as for the use of a beautiful bridge as a powerful metaphor.

If Square’s central unifying principle is design then Illuminant’s is conceptual soundness. This is why we test and re-test every element of every campaign we create. We challenge ourselves individually and as a team to defend the choices we make in our work to help our clients to communicate effectively and achieve their objectives. We invent a CI for a client? We challenge ourselves to justify the conceptual soundness of the logos and devices, the typography, the colour palette and the other CI elements. We invent a media campaign for a client? We challenge ourselves to justify the conceptual soundness of the headlines and story outlines, the publications and editors, the copy and images. We create an information memorandum? We challenge ourselves to justify the flow of the storytelling, the visual presentation of the client’s business, the impact of the copywriting. We create a website? We challenge ourselves to justify the information architecture, every feature inclusion, the choices we make in the content SEO. Social media campaigns, experiential marketing events, smartphone apps, above-the-line advertising, below-the-line direct marketing… all of these disciplines and more contain campaign elements and the Illuminant way is to challenge ourselves to justify and defend the choices we make in them as being fully conceptually sound.

Everything we do is done for a reason. We abhor self-indulgence in the work we produce. We communicate as simply as possible and practicable. We strive to achieve a message delivery that is in our client’s true voice. Everything we do, and every choice we make is because those choices are conceptually — and therefore strategically — sound.  Only if our work is consistently and completely conceptually sound can we achieve our commercial objective to support our clients to achieve their own objectives.

Article by Simon Cousins, Illuminant’s founder and top banana.

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