Box CEO Aaron Levie: To Create Something Exceptional, Do Sweat The Small Stuff

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Business schools and most jobs don’t teach you how important it is to sweat the small stuff.  

In fact, we’re mostly told the opposite--don’t be a micromanager, don’t be penny wise and pound foolish, don't miss the forest for the trees. The implied wisdom is that abstract and conceptual thinking always prevails over narrow determination and single-mindedness. And yet, when we look at the greatest inventions, greatest companies, and greatest teams of our time, their success always comes down to tireless concern over every last detail.

Big, sluggish companies--you know the ones, with brands that elicit ambivalence instead of aspiration--are fat, dumb, and uncaring for a reason. Their products, from airline flights to consumer electronics devices, feel like the result of an accident or a hassle rather than the core purpose of their existence. In these instances, system thinking--with the goal of managing and improving processes, logistics, and throughput--reigns supreme in the organization, replacing a maniacal focus on delivering great products or services by attending to every last excruciating detail.

It’s certainly easy as a startup to focus on the small things, because when you’re small, every issue is big. This is why, counterintuitively, a small, nimble company with far fewer resources often delivers the most innovation and a superior user experience. By focusing on every level of detail, because survival is on the line, better products and service emerge. As organizations grow, this responsibility dissipates, founders move on, and quality suffers--it can always be someone else’s problem to worry about the small, nuanced, granular things. Those are tactical issues, and I’m strategic, right?  

Yet, the best companies in the world are those that have scaled by turning those tactics and granular efforts into the reason for their success. This is why you get a near-uniformly positive experience when flying Virgin compared to often-abysmal treatment from other airlines, or why Apple unequivocally makes products that just feel better than other PC manufacturers.

Why the small stuff is so important

In management, we can easily slip into thinking about the holistic delivery of a product distinct from the perfect delivery of every subcomponent or part that makes up that service. Everyone has been in those meetings--executives feel that the small things can be left to everyone else, instead focusing on the areas of "higher value." Phrases like "this is good enough," or "customers won’t notice" should be stamped out of any management team’s or individual’s vocabulary.  

Because ultimately, your product or service is consumed on that granular level that's being ignored. Whether it’s clicking on a link, signing up for a product, playing with a dial, or conversing with an attendant, these are the interfaces from which customers experience your brand. No customer cares that you have the best logistics and supply chain in the world if the final manifestation of your product is flawed. 

And with the Internet amplifying how people share their love or hate for products, increasing global competition, and contracting wallets, the quality of these interactions are more important than ever before.  

The small things have a disproportionate impact on customers' feelings. It’s the way Kindle knows your name when you first load it up, the consistent experience you get from Starbucks baristas, the dozens of optimizations Spotify does to make sure your music starts streaming instantly, or the richer sound and better comfort you get from Bose headphones. We're taught that quality and cost should scale proportionally, but many of the best experiences don't come with a larger price tag at all. Just a greater level of attention to the details.

The combination of an insane attention to these details and neurotic level of focus on customer experience in all areas is what sets apart the great companies from the good. Organizations that do decide to adopt this level of intensity will always have superior offerings, an instant differentiator from the indistinguishable competition.  

Building a culture around sweating the small stuff

"Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected," Steve Jobs once famously and said. 

Most companies have given up on caring about excellence altogether, so there aren’t too many examples that we can live by. M.G. Siegler argues that leaders need to aim for less deference to produce high-quality work. While this has been proven to work across film, fashion, and technology, it’s also a cop-out for the entire team. It should be everyone’s responsibility to push for a higher standard and level of experience. 

Unsurprisingly, we're actually well-incented to make our work the very best--it's better for profits, long-term morale, and it's more gratifying--but we often don’t know why it's so critical until it's too late. The product gets shipped to poor reviews: fail. Customer unrest thanks to poor support: double fail. And amidst the infinite varying priorities and market changes, it becomes shockingly easy to undervalue quality even in a well-run organization.  

In any organization, quality bars are subjective and moving targets, making them hard to identify and address, let alone maintain. But when they’re not defined or upheld, most organizations will regress to the mean, which we can assume is the average output. But leading organizations are built by exploiting the fringe--the fringe in quality, in performance, in experience, in cost, and so on.

To sweat the small stuff means to be uncompromising about anything that affects the quality of a product or experience for customers. It means making tradeoffs of time and effort for the efficacy of the final output. It means implementing systems, social or formal, that ensure high bars are maintained at all times and in any circumstance. It means delaying product releases, extending work hours, or losing a little extra margin to make things just right.  

Asking "What would be best for our customer?" doesn’t go nearly far enough. Leading through this question gets you to average results. Instead ask, "What will blow our customers' minds?" Repeat the question "Can we do better?" until the point of migraine-induced annoyance, and see how much things change. Create a culture that forces this challenge multiple times, every step of the way, and you’ll see remarkable changes in every deliverable. Implement a we-won’t-ship line in the sand that can't be subverted for any reason if quality standards aren't met. There are other tactics to distribute the enforcement as well.

Mark Pincus, the CEO of Zynga, pushes on the notion that every employee is the CEO of something. This empowers individuals to take responsibility for their area of ownership, adding a level of accountability and fulfillment that can drive quality. In many ways this is a psychological trick to ensure success and quality in the most narrow and distinct of areas. For customer delight, Zappos became determined to build a winning culture for its company that would make employees love their jobs, and thus reflect this inspiration and happiness on their clients.  

If you don't seem paranoid about perfection, you're probably not aiming high enough. Sadly--for consumers--the vast majority of companies will never put this level of focus on their products, services, or interactions.  But building it into your culture, and making sure it's a collective and distributed effort, is a winning way to ensure your products are superior.  

Author Aaron Levie is the CEO and co-founder of Box, which he originally created as a college business project with the goal of helping people easily access their information from any location. 

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[Image: Top: Flickr user Jez Page; bottom: scobleizer; thumbnail: thorswiftphotography]

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22 Comments

  • kamal

    Hello Aaron,
    I enjoyed your blog about "do sweat the small stuff". I whole heatedly agree - just as a long distance runner must take it slow and steady before the final sprint - more companies need to live and breathe this philosophy.

    I was fortunate to be raised in such a culture, culture where the small stuff - the right things - are always more important, where the journey is more important than the destination. And, I admire leaders such as yourself founding a company on these time-tested principles. 

    Bottom line : pay attention to the small details, these matter in the BIG picture!!

    Keep up the great work that you have started with Box. Best wishes.

    kamal 

  • Levi Smith

    Just wrote a post about this not long ago - lessons learned from my father working on the ranch. The details do matter. They're indicative of how all the things that you cannot observe are going from quality, to security and everything else you may be concerned about when making a purchase. http://itswn.us/tUD5eR

  • Craig Barrett

    I disagree.  Sweating the small stuff means worrying more than necessary about things that don't really matter and allowing oneself to get overwhelmed by letting the myriad details of something mount up to appear overwhelming and insurmountable.

    Apple also isn't a particularly good example.  It's true that Apple focuses on some details, but it can hardly be said that they focus on all the details.  For instance, I don't personally know a single person who uses an Apple product who doesn't hate iTunes.  It's a clunky, user-unfriendly piece of software and the fact that they force their customers to use something that terrible says a lot to me.  They don't care about those details.  I have an iPod and sure, it has some nice features, but I've seen other players where more attention has been payed to usability and user-friendliness and that attention has made them more pleasant and easier to use.  I won't be buying another iPod, that's for sure.  I've tried using a Macbook.  Couldn't figure it out.  The user interface isn't intuitive (and no, it's not because I only ever use Windows.  I've used Linux and even BSD).  The details Apple focuses on tend to be things like the look and feel of their products.  Some of the details they focus on make a difference to one's actual experience of using the product (cleverly making the function keys the alternate action rather than the primary, for instance), but much of their focus seems to be on making their products look nice so that people are more attracted to them and therefore more likely to purchase them.

    So perhaps the lesson really should be, don't ignore the details that make a real difference to the user/buyer of your service or product.  Put a lot of effort into figuring out what those are and then doing them as well as you can.  Don't completely ignore all the other details, but don't let them overwhelm your focus on what matters.

  • Z_californianus-comment

    I think the point is that there are details that DO matter and that ignoring them by just focusing on the main processes of the business ends up degrading the end product or service. 

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  • Ketan

    Really a wonderful article. I always believed in making sure each smaller details is given its due. However , as someone has commented its difficult to find people with the same commitment. Many times I have seen people making mistakes in alignment , fonts or even spelling which may appear very tiny to them but creates huge loss of perception with customer.   

  • Shiblee Mehdi

    Uah! This is what exactly I also talk about always in case of making software, web application. As a user when I notice very simple things are not given, very small things were not taken care of, I get unhappy. You've mentioned phrases like "this is good enough," or "customers won’t notice" and you know I’ve heard exactly similar from my team mates like “Admin is an expert guy who occasionally does mistake. So, we don’t need to fix it.” OR “Admin would not operate that way.” OR “All users are not like me.” :)
     
    You know, I visited someone who has designed his own home and living there. When I showed him some very tiny-miny things that he did not do, but by doing those he could have get more happiness & comfort in daily life, he realized it and was amazed! But now renovating/fixing those would cost more money that he cannot afford now.
     
    By the way, “If you don't seem paranoid about perfection, you're probably not aiming high enough.” I believe it too. But the flip side is not good though. Person like me (who is paranoid about perfection) is actually unhappy man on many things in real life. Even I cannot enjoy a movie & TV shows like other people do. Somehow many mistakes are caught and I become unhappy. Similar unhappiness occur in me at many other places too.

  • Nate Davis

    Thanks Aaron; I hope to start my own company some day, and I'll remember this when I do. What I appreciate how you connected the dots between an internal emphasis on excellence, and the external business results that come about because of it. When I saw this "Done Manifesto" from Makerbot the other day ( http://jeffreydavis.visibli.co... ), it troubled me for downgrading craft. But you articulated a number of other reasons why as well. 

  • Paul

    Wow, this is more than counter-intuitive. It's wrong.  Works if you're Steve Jobs, but that ship has sailed. We're run by a detail-oriented perfectionist and it keeps us from finishing jobs.  I'll go with Jeff Bezos who talked years ago about failing forward, delivering a product then improving it from feedback, and has done pretty well with that concept. Obviously it's elements of both, as it almost always is, but if you don't ship you're not going to innovate.  

  • Jenn Lofgren

    Your article reminds me of how the city of New York reduced crime dramatically by focusing on the small things (broken window theory).  Specifically focusing on fare jumpers and graffiti on the subway system led to a sudden and significant reduction in the overall crime rate for the city and the rate continued to drop for ten years!  They cleaned up the subway cars removing all graffiti and quickly removed any new graffiti.  Strict enforcement of the laws targeting fare jumpers also led to stricter enforcement against squeegy guys, public drinking and public urination.

    By caring about the little stuff, the city of New York led the way in showing respect for the city and its citizens quality of life right down to their experiences in mundane parts of life.  Focusing on meaningful small stuff can lead to huge impact across the board.

  • Craig Barrett

    The New York story is actually a myth.  Crime reduction was observed in many cities in the US over that same period, some with more reduction than New York, but only New York claimed it was because of the broken window approach.  Things that did contribute were things like a general trend in falling crime, more and more visible policing (which works pretty much everywhere) and so on.  Strict enforcement of the law is pretty much where the statement stops.  They started strictly enforcing the law and crime dropped.  It's not rocket science.

  • ash

    Great article. There is God in the details. You can "make things happen" only by going down to the smallest level of detail. Strategic thinking is absolutely critical to give the leadership and direction. But only excruciating attention to details can help execute the strategy.

    But we should not forget the bigger picture so that we know why we are doing certain things a certain way.

    The problem with big companies is that they are so compartmentalized and there is too much bureaucracy. Hence less innovation for what they are actually capable of.

    Do sweat the small stuff, but don't forget about the big picture/big stuff...Or else you will be building/creating the best product/user experience that nobody needs or wants to use

  • Gia Volterra de Saulnier

    Amen!  For us, since we run Renaissance Festivals in MA (and now possibly further in New England) as a benefit for non profits, it's to our best interest to make sure even the smallest details are covered - this is what makes us different from a good portion of other organizers AND our clients recognize it PLUS it helped us win amazing achievements to this day that I am still wondered by.

  • Creative Energy Management

    YES!! Finally! The big stuff is made up of the small stuff. Excellence and perfection should always be the goal. Imagine if those were consumer expectations? And why aren't they? The question now is, how do we change the mindset? Thanks for a great article that will be the basis of much conversation this morning.
    Kimberly

  • lucy.gu

    Always agree"don't sweet the small stuff".This article give us different views,i need change my previous thoughts.

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  • JohnZajaros

    Excellent article. I started my first "real" business in the heart of the 80's recession. I was 27. One of my business partners, a client who liked what he saw & bought in, was also a mentor. He had all of these unique & interesting sayings...at least I thought they were unique at the time. The difference between his sayings & many of today's cliches? He lived by them!

    One I will never forget, the one that applies to this article:

    "If you take care of the corners, the middle takes care of itself."

    He was so right. You are too. Great article!

    John

  • Ernest Kincaid Jr.

    Outstanding article. Exceptionally well-put Mr. Levie; thank you. I created my subscriber account on FastCompany.com just to comment on this article. Having worked for companies that skimp on the pursuit of perfection (to borrow a phrase from a famous car company) and living in a community growing up into a thriving commercial location yet with few exceptions lacks in that department as well, makes me more adamant in the passion to pursue perfection myself, as well as demand this perfection in things such as simple customer service at my local 'store'. 'Tis too true, too often, that few companies sweat the details to make sure their consumers consume their best.

  • Uzodimma Chiapa

    Great article, incredible insights. I have one question, what are the odds that trying to be perfect might cause an unnecessary delay in a project?