Follow the lead of successful startups and you'll find valuable lessons to improve your company's intranet.

I've just finished reading an interesting book, Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston.

It includes interviews with founders of such successful web based companies as Craigslist (Craig Newmark), Tickle (James Currier), Paypal (Max Levchin), Flickr (Caterina Fake), TripAdvisor (Steve Kaufer) and Yahoo! (Tim Brady).

What struck me about these interviews is that the characteristics that define a successful startup could well be applied to successful intranets.

Successful web-based startups:

  • Often develop from an idea that solves a problem the founder is trying to solve themselves
  • Get a lot of "eyeballs" -- i.e. people visiting their sites
  • Deliver content or a product that is so useful that its adoption spreads by word-of-mouth
  • Are driven by people who are passionate about what they do
  • Get something out the door quickly and then reiterate
  • Change their plans based on feedback from their customers
  • Are able to obtain funding

Solves a Problem

Many startups have resulted from the founder solving his or her own problem. Yahoo!, Hotmail, Del.icio.us, Craigslist, Six Apart and TripAdvisor are all examples of companies that began this way.

The story I’ve heard from Jerry and Dave is that they were both doing their PhD theses and all the technical papers that they would have to reference were online, so they were trying to keep track of them all.” -- Tim Brady, First employee at Yahoo! Talks about how Yahoo got started.
I just sort of realized that I had evolved my own filing system, and it worked for me.” -- Joshua Schachter, Founder of Del.icio.us
I guess my advice is: solve a problem that you have, first and foremost, and chances are, other people may have that same problem.” -- Mark Fletcher, Founder of ONElist and Bloglines

Lesson 1: Design your intranet to solve the business problems your typical end-users have at work. Would it be a page full of company news like many of today’s intranets?

Note: You may want to actually put your ideas into practice and enter the Design a useful intranet home page competition. There is a Kindle Fire to be won!

Eyeballs

The key to startup success! Once startups have built a strong following, they are in a much better position to obtain funding. Yahoo, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter -- all rapidly built a phenomenal number of users and were able to obtain funding as a result.

My philosophy on these types of companies – consumer-based Internet companies – is that you don’t need to worry about the business model initially. If you get users, then everything else follows.” -- Mark Fletcher, Founder of ONElist and Bloglines

Lesson 2: Develop content or services that are going to attract staff to your intranet. Easier said than done, I guess! At the least, track the number of page views and unique users so that you can measure weekly or monthly activity increases.

Word-of-mouth

It’s surprising how little marketing and PR the successful startups use. Most of the success is driven purely by the quality of the product and word-of-mouth marketing.

The majority of our new customers have heard about it from someone else.” -- David Heinemeier Hansson, Partner, 37signals and creator of Ruby on Rails

It turns out that marketing is just making the product good enough that people spread it on their own, and giving them ways to do that…. Now I can’t stand meeting with professional marketers who try to ‘craft’ the ‘message’ and all that junk.” -- Blake Ross, Creator of Firefox

I also learned how you build up the right kind of buzz about your product … With Firefox we catered to the bloggers first.” -- Blake Ross, Creator of Firefox

Lesson 3: identify the key influencers within your organization and get them to promote the benefits of your intranet. Provide the tools and motivation necessary for staff to promote your intranet features.

Passion

Not surprisingly many startup founders become obsessed with their enterprises -- working long hours, living and breathing the dream. Most also identify a higher purpose for their vision other than making money.

When we started the company, we wanted to change the world.” -- James Currier, Founder of Tickle

If you aren’t passionate about what you are going to do, don’t do it.” -- Charles Geschke, Founder of Adobe

Successful startup founders typically get rich from the process, but the ones I interviewed weren’t in it just for the money. They had a lot of pride in craftsmanship. And they wanted to change the world.” -- Jessica Livingston, Author, Founders at Work

Lesson 4: Take pride in the product you deliver. Identify a higher purpose for your intranet.

Release Quickly

Regardless of the product or service, many of the successful startups seem to release a version quickly. This enables a dialog and a relationship to be created with your users who can then help you improve your product.

You don’t really know if it’s a good idea until you’ve executed it.”  -- Joshua Schachter, Founder of Del.icio.us

It’s critical just to get something out quickly. Just to start shipping and then you can iterate. Because shipping is just this huge hurdle….. Because then you start a dialog with your users.” -- Mark Fletcher, Founder of ONElist and Bloglines

Doing less is so important. People often wind up adding features, adding stuff. Making it bigger is the typical way you engineer out of a problem, right?” -- Joshua Schachter, Founder of Del.icio.us

Lesson 5: Get your intranet out there, listen to what your customers say and then get it out there again.

User Feedback

Early on in the process, successful startups change and adapt their offering based on what their customers are saying, until they reach a point of critical mass.

Most people have a very difficult time imagining something they can’t see at least a demonstration of –- or, worst case, a video -– it communicates an idea better than hand-waving for hours. So get to a demo quickly.” -- Brewster Kahle, Founder of WAIS, Internet Archive and Alexa Internet

What guided the founders through this process [of building a startup] was their empathy for the users. They never lost sight of making things that people would want.” -- Jessica Livingston, Author, Founders at Work

Lesson 6: Listen to your end-users. Create a system for tracking and acting on feedback.

Funding

Successful startups can get it.

Lesson 7: See lessons 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6.

Conclusion

Intranets are not dissimilar to web startups. They are both trying to anticipate and meet a need through the internet. They both want more customers and funding. So why not apply a "startup" mentality to your intranet and follow the lessons outlined above? You may end up with the rewards of a successful startup founder!

Footnote: Is the intranet dead?

There have been a few discussions recently on CMSWire about whether the intranet is dead or not. This is the wrong question to ask because it puts the focus on the semantics. The right question is:
What do I need to do to get senior management and the CEO's attention for "soft" projects such as:

  • Making business processes more efficient and repeatable;
  • Identifying and implementing continuous improvement initiatives;
  • Promoting collaboration and information sharing;
  • Improving employee engagement;
  • Managing unstructured information more effectively (through search & taxonomy);
  • Providing better access to information (through mobile devices or off-site access) and
  • Managing organizational change and communication more effectively.

Whether these initiatives come under the banner of the Digital Workplace, Intranet, Kaizan, Web 2.0, the Social Intranet, Total Quality Management, Knowledge Management, Business Process Improvements or something else is irrelevant to some extent.

The real question is the same question that confronts startups:

“How do I capture the attention and imagination of management enough to obtain the funding I need to implement and maintain these kinds of initiatives?“

Will a name change from Intranet to Digital Workplace help this goal? It may grab attention in the short term, but long term the most effective way to obtain funding for any initiative is to gain a groundswell of support from your end-users. After all, “if you get users, then everything else follows."

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