Why Whuffie is Difficult to Grok for Large Companies


The advantage I've had while working for and with startups for most of my career is that the 'underdog' or 'the new kid on the block' gets a great deal of support and love from people all around. Somewhere deeply ingrained in the folklore of capitalism is the rags to riches story that almost everyone can celebrate. But when the riches come about...the story ends. And the loving nature of those around the company can suddenly turn to suspicion. We love to hate the successful. We help lift them to their success, then resent them for it. I might have found that odd at some point, but have grown to understand it mostly through reading social anthropologists such as Matt Ridley, Tor Norretranders and Lewis Hyde, all of whom talk about the gift economy and its historical role in keeping those in power...in power. All the way back to Aristotle, the parable has been that those who grow all too powerful in any given economy need to be taken down a notch so that the rest of the community can thrive. In the analogy of the Tall Poppy, those that overgrow and overshadow cut off the sun from the rest. In order for the community to thrive, they must be cut down.

Thus, in the way that the tall poppies are to be cut down to size, we have a tendency to do the same for corporations or individuals that have gotten too large in our culture. Which brings me to why it is difficult to grok whuffie if you are a large company.

So why? With good cause, big companies are a little more paranoid than their scrappy, startup counterparts. Their poppies have grown above the others and there seem to be natural and politcal mechanisms put into place to cut them down to size. I was disgusted, but not surprised to hear of the number of people lurking around the corner, waiting for a successful firm to make the smallest mistake so that they can raise class action suits for ridiculous things like sending out an email without unsubscribe information or raising forward-looking information that doesn't happen. These opportunists aren't called out because what they do is shrouded in the purview of watching out for the public good.

Okay, so I get it. As I tweeted earlier tonight, I'm saddened that we create our own rat traps in success. Once we're 'there' we can no longer do the stuff that made us successful in the 1st place. All of this was brought up by Josh Kopelman's great post on the success of Paypal. And that success came from the fact that they had nothing to lose as compared to their rival eBay. As he wrote, "I believe that eBay understood everything that was needed to build a great payments product. They were just unable to do so given the risks involved." Paypal could break the rules all they wanted because, well, they could get away with it as a small, scrappy startup. eBay, having established itself as a big success, could not. You just can't behave that way when you get to be a certain size.

Or can you?

As I watched Tony Hsieh of Zappos.com on the SXSW stage last week, it gave me a great deal of hope. Zappos.com isn't small potatoes. They just broke over $1billion in revenue, have thousands of employees (I can't find the exact number, but I think there are 1400 in corporate and another 1400 in their Kentucky warehouse). Yet with these big numbers, Tony is committed to not being the type of company that is risk-averse. He encourages employees to tweet, listing their tweets out front and center. He's committed to service and bringing happiness and he isn't afraid to let any of his employees speak to any reporter, customer or blogger at any time. He trusts that he's instilled a positive enough culture at Zappos that he needn't censor or concern himself with the unique spin each employee has on the company. He encourages it.

Tony's former company became the kind of company he didn't want to work for. The one that couldn't grok whuffie. The one that wasn't fun or a little weird and wasn't focused on delivering WOW through customer service. So, from the beginning, he made sure he built Zappos to be the company that was. And guess what? There don't seem to be as many people lurking in the shadows wanting to take Zappos down a notch...even though it's poppy is soaring above the rest. I think it's because the tall poppy that is Zappos is deeply committed in giving back to the community that got it there. It's part of the gift economy. Zappos has the freedom to embrace the chaos because it didn't take out any other poppies on the way up.

So, although as companies get bigger, they tend to lose the zeal and scrappiness that got them there in the first place, it doesn't have to be the case. Can big companies who haven't taken the care that Zappos has build that culture retrospectively? I'd love to see - or be part of - that case study. Big companies CAN grok whuffie. It'll just take a little TLC.

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