Five Ideas from Jeff Bezos Helped This Startup To Grow Faster

This month a startup CEO emailed to tell me that the ideas in my July column — Five Ideas from Jeff Bezos that Can Spur Your Company’s Growth — helped her rethink her business The CEO is Carol Barash who runs Story2, a service that helps clients better tell their stories for college and job applications.

In an August 5 interview, Barash said that when she read the article, she “started wondering what [Bezos’s five ideas] looked like from the perspective of my mission-driven EdTech startup, Story2.”

She asked herself, “Can a small company, particularly one with strong community vision, activate the same success strategies as the world’s richest man and, arguably, it’s most successful entrepreneur and CEO?”

Here are five ways that Story2 used the ideas in my article and how your company might benefit from them as well.

1. Sustain intellectual humility by attracting geniuses and bringing out their best. 

Bezos’s first idea was that the more successful a company becomes, the greater the risk that it will become complacent. And once complacency sets in, it is only a matter of time before the company stops adapting to its changing competitive environment, begins to lose market share, and eventually ceases to exist.

Barash sees Bezos as someone who fights complacency by attracting very talented executives due to an attitude towards learning that keeps him open to the team’s genius. 

Barash — who had traveled to China as its Covid-19 problems were peaking — realized that the pandemic would spread to the U.S. She asked the team what they thought customers would need most during the pandemic.

The team said Story2’s college applicants would be highly anxious about 2021 admissions. So the company decided to give away its its college admissions essay software for free.

The takeaways: assemble a talented leadership team and listen to their best ideas.

2. Obsess over customers by investing in your strengths that customers value most. 

Bezos enjoys the challenge of satisfying its perennially delightfully dissatisfied customers..

Applying that mindset, Barash asked customers “three open-ended questions: What do you value in Story2? If we could do anything to help you through this crisis, what would it be? How can we help you now?”

Customers said that they see Story2 as “really good at building online learning communities,” Barash said. So the company emphasized its online coaching bootcamps that enable college applications to finish “their college essay, cover letter, or CEO pitch.” 

Obsessing over customers has paid off. Barash said,.”June and July 2020 have been our two largest months of consecutive, repeatable sales. Solving customer’s real problems, right now, puts us on a path to profitability for the first time.”

The takeaway: to grow your business, emphasize the strengths that your customers value the most.

3. Fight bureaucracy in the customer’s organization by giving your product to users at no charge.

Story2 does not see itself as bureaucratic so Bezos’ call to fight bureaucracy was not relevant to the way the company operated.

However, Story2’s education clients — notably the college admissions processes are a source of “fundamental stasis and inaction,” she noted. Rather than try to sell its software into that bureaucracy, Story2 decided to give it away to students.

It strikes me that many startups are in a similar situation which is why the concept of a freemium business model — in which a basic version of the software is made available at no charge with a more fully-featured version paid version purchased as the product is widely adopted — makes sense.

4. Embrace external trends that drive rivals’ rapid growth. 

Bezos emphasized the importance of changing a company’s strategy so that powerful external forces become growth-propelling tailwinds.

Covid-19 did not propel rapid growth for Story2 the way it did for say, Zoom Video. However, some other EdTech companies were able to turn Covid-19 into a tailwind by shifting quickly online.

However, Covid-19 did move most learning online. Story2 saw that its skill at teaching people to tell stories “makes remote learning personalized, communal, and fun,” Barash explained.

To capitalize on the increased importance of story-telling skills, Story2 is creating “a storytelling credential” to demonstrate measurable improvements — in public speaking confidence and writing skills. 

The takeaway: identify strategy changes your company can make to turn external trends into a growth tailwind.

5. Make high quality decisions quickly by going with your gut

Bezos advocates making decisions quickly with 70% of the information rather than delaying to get the remaining 30%.

To that end, Barash has become more decisive and trusting of her instincts. Decisions she made in this way include “celebrating the free version of our product; scooping up new team members; and [racing] to receive a PPP loan.”

The takeaway is to make decisions faster without 30% of the information.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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