Founder's Mentality Blog
It’s summer, and we should have a little fun.
We’ve defined the Founder’s Mentality℠ in these blog posts along a number of dimensions: a sense of insurgency, an owner’s mindset, an obsession with the front line. But notwithstanding how hard it is to manage a scaling enterprise, companies with a strong Founder’s Mentality also seem to have more fun. They have more fun because they are in love with their products.
Consider WD-40. Roaming around the San Diego company’s website is far more fun than one should expect from an outfit selling lubricants. The company adores its 60-year-old flagship product unreservedly and isn’t afraid to celebrate its many wonders. Here are half a dozen things I learned:
1. Chemist Norm Larsen discovered the original formulation for WD-40 in a search for a solvent/degreaser to prevent rust on Atlas rockets. The name stands for water displacement, 40th formula. It prevents corrosion by displacing water and it took 40 tries to get it right.
2. Having nailed the original formula in 1953, the company decided to put it into an aerosol can for consumer use in 1958. Renamed WD-40 (from Rocket Chemical Co.) in 1969, the company went public in 1973, and by 1993 the product was in 80% of US households. Eighty percent? Heck, it was big news in 2012 when a CNBC survey showed that more than 50% of US households owned an Apple product.
3. In 2006, the WD-40 Fan Club reached 100,000 members, putting it in league with the Duck Tape Club.
4. Just as Duck brand obsesses over uses for duct tape, WD-40 collects its fans’ suggestions for uses of WD-40, which currently number in the thousands, according to the site. They include:
- Shining seashells or your doll’s shoes
- Getting Play-Doh (or duct tape, for that matter) out of your hair
- Driving moisture from a scuba-diving belt (I’m not making this up)
- Removing crayon marks from shoes (an age-old problem)
- Allowing easy removal of arrows from their targets
5. WD-40 also collects myths about the product, including:
- WD-40 contains fish oil and can be used to catch fish (it does not, and it cannot)
- The product cures arthritis (it does not)
6. Larsen sold the company for cash in the 1950s, believing he’d easily create another product as good. He didn’t, sadly. Instead, he came up with a good petroleum jelly that did an excellent job of healing cow udders but failed to muster the same household penetration as WD-40.
WD-40 reminded me of Leon Restaurants, the UK-based “naturally fast food” chain founded by John Vincent and Henry Dimbleby in 2004 and named after John’s father. The two founders are obsessed with their product—good Mediterranean-inspired fast food like Shredded Kale and Peanut Salad or the Sweet Potato Falafel Wrap—and are aggressively opening stores around the UK.
To focus everyone on great customer service, the founders started something called the Glimpses of Brilliance program. It celebrates employee efforts to solve customer issues or enhance service (these opportunities are referred to as “moments of truth”). Here’s one example of a customer’s comments circulated recently:
The moment of truth: “Shortly after I sat down to eat with my sons 1 & 3 my 3 year said he needed to go to the toilet … I asked a member of staff (Istvan) if it was ok to leave our food etc, at the table while I took my son to the toilet and he said that would be ok.”
The glimpse of brilliance: “Upon our return Istvan said he had ordered us fresh meals as it wouldn’t be right for us to eat them cold. This was something I did not expect and I thought it was such a lovely gesture, we really appreciated it.”
I spoke to John Vincent about this and he said, “We are on a revolution. It starts with good food that does you good. But we want the revolution to be far more that that—we want a true wellness revolution where we do well for our customers, our suppliers and our people. A part of doing right by our people is to have a positive relationship, to learn and create, and to achieve as a team.” As he explained: “The whole goal of the Glimpses of Brilliance initiative is to celebrate those moments when our people seize the day to help a customer (or help one another). How do you create an environment where an Istvan is going to grab the moment to freshen up a customer’s meal because they’ve become distracted and their food’s gone cold? You’ve got to recruit the Istvans of the world—leaders who are mindful and generous—and you have to celebrate their actions! And then we have to share their experiences so we all learn.”
Leon is an insurgent at war with a fast-food industry it believes is underserving customers and employees. WD-40 is an insurgent at war with an industry that generally ignores the joy DIY enthusiasts and professionals take in discovering new uses for tried-and-true products.
Insurgents love their products. Insurgents have fun with customers. Many incumbent companies have lost the fun. Rather than talking about products and customers, the dialog is about plans and numbers. It reminds me of the Tom Hanks character in the movie Big, when he takes a job testing toys. Picking up a “transformer” toy that morphs from a building to a robot, he says: “I don’t get it. It turns from a building into a robot, right? Well, what’s fun about that? What’s so fun about playing with a building? That’s not any fun!”
The three elements of the Founder's Mentality help companies sustain performance while avoiding the inevitable crises of growth.