I was in an upbeat board meeting yesterday for one of my growing companies that is having a good year. While our business is in good shape, one of the older product lines from one of our partners is struggling. So far our partner’s product line’s sales are down 25% year over year. We have some market intelligence on some of our competitors and their sales for this product line are also down over 20% yoy. In comparison, our sales for this product line are only down 10%.
“We suck less” gleefully chanted one of the executives in the meeting.
I smiled. It’s always pleasant when your stories make the rounds and lives to be a teenager.
In 1992, it was 7:30 AM and I was already having a shitty day. It was a typical early winter morning in Boston – cold, dank, dark rain. I was still drying out from my ride in to my office on the T trying to warm up with a cup of stale coffee wondering why I still lived in Boston. The web wasn’t around yet, so I was reading the Wall Street Journal (which was coming off on my fingers) waiting for my first meeting to start when my phone rang (we had recently installed direct dial at my business).
I picked up. The person calling said, in a not so happy, 7:30 AM cold, dank, dark, Bostonian voice “Can I talk to Mr. Feld?” (I’d made the mistake of naming my first company Feld Technologies – since we had installed direct dial, I had gotten a sudden spate of unwanted phone calls.
“This is he – what can I do for you”, I said in as optimistic a voice as I could muster.
“You guys suck. I’ve been her since 6 AM trying to reindex my files. I’m pissed off, things aren’t working, they never work, and I’m not paying your bill.”
“Um – who’s this”? I asked.
“Mr. Angry,” said the person on the other line. “You’re the fourth computer consulting firm we’ve hired in the last six months and no one can get our stuff to work. I’m sick of paying for this. Computers suck, you suck, your systems suck, and your bills suck.”
Mr. Angry and I were off to a good start. i’d been here plenty of times before (although I preferred to have finished my first cup of coffee before diving into the intellectual stimulation of trying to solve this type of problem.) An hour later, I’d gotten Mr. Angry’s files reindexed, his system running, and his temper cooled. He had gotten to know me well enough to call me Brad, although I was not quite ready to call him Mr. Happy.
“Wow – thanks Brad. That was really helpful. I’ve got to run because people start showing up here at 9 and I’ve got to go put paper in the printers, change all the toner cartridges, and hide the floppy disks so people have to come find me if they need one. Go ahead and send me the bill – I’ll pay it.” (Excellent, another $125 successfully earned…)
I got up and wandered down the hall. Most of the folks in my company had trickled in and were settling into their morning routine. I stretched, let out a big groan, and chortled loudly “Now that sucked!” I paused, smiled, and realized that while it had sucked, we had actually sucked less than the three companies that had messed things up before us.
Inspired – I called a 9 AM company meeting and announced our new motto – “We Suck Less.” I explained to my bewildered team that computer consulting (well – actualy – anything having to do with computers) is difficult, most people suck at it, and we can succeed simply by sucking less than everyone else. This was a lot more palatable, interesting, and achievable then some idealistic and corny mission like “We’ll be the best computer consulting firm on planet earth.” (C’mon – there is no such thing.) Over the next few years, we often set our prospects back on their heals when we told them “Our goal in working with you is to suck less than the last guy that was here” – but after we explained it, had a collective laugh, and re-affirmed that we intended to do our best for them, we often won their business while setting a much more achievable goal and tone.
12 years later it still applies.