How do you build a high-performing company?
Frank Slootman has answers. He’s led three companies to their IPOs: Data Domain, Service Now, and Snowflake. Slootman turned around these high-potential companies by implementing his “Amp It Up” philosophy, which he’s spoken about in his book, this article, and most of his podcasts.
Amp It Up has three pillars: increase the tempo, raise the standards, and narrow the focus.
This memo is a synopsis of his best ideas, with a particular focus on how we can apply them at Write of Passage. I’ve also shared this memo with friends and fellow founders outside the organization.
Slootman’s Amp It Up Philosophy
1. Increase the Tempo
Without effective leadership, companies become sluggish as they grow. Malaise sets in. People become risk-averse. “I’ll do it right now” turns into “I’ll do it tomorrow,” which turns into “I’ll get it to you next week,” which turns into “Oops, I forgot about that.”
It’s a leader’s job to prevent stasis. You have to inject the organization with energy and intensity.
When people say they’ll get back to you in a week, ask them why not tomorrow or the next day? It doesn’t matter if your request is unreasonable. The point of the question is to increase people’s sense of urgency. When you change an organization’s tempo, people demand more from each other, which is the essence of a high-performing organization.
Increasing the tempo isn’t just about speed. It’s also about rejecting incrementalism.
People who work incrementally inch forward instead of taking bold leaps. They make timid decisions because they’re risk-averse. They work from a place of fear because screw-ups at most companies are so severely punished. But if you only aim for marginal improvements, you’ll only make marginal progress. Incrementalism will kill your company, gradually sinking it into stasis and stagnation.
Avoiding risk is the riskiest strategy of all. Companies, like living organisms, need to constantly reinvent themselves.1
Push people to achieve their goals way faster than they think is possible. The need for speed inspires innovation. Ask somebody to do something 20% faster, and they’ll use conventional strategies. Linear progress is the best you’ll get. But if you ask them to do something 2,000% faster, they’ll have to question all their base-level assumptions and innovate.
Here are some questions we can ask, all of which are useful because they’re so dramatic:
- How can you achieve your 10-year vision in the next six months?
- If we could only work one day per week, how would we change our approach?
- What’s the most fun project we could possibly take on?
- If all our existing marketing channels disappeared, how would we reach customers?
- What product feature would justify a 10x increase in prices?
- If we had 10x the money, what would we do differently?
The slower a company moves, the more people suffer from the “End of History Illusion,” where they think the company’s reached its apex of progress. Speed of innovation shows people how radically different the future can be. Fighting The End of History Illusion is why Jeff Bezos wrote “It’s Always Day 1” in his first shareholder letter. At Amazon, he worked in a building called Day 1, and he took the name with him when he moved offices.2
Speed matters in business. Day 1 companies make quick, high-quality decisions. Day 2 companies make them slowly. Day 2 companies are slow because they’re culturally uncomfortable making decisions with limited information. Bezos says most decisions should be made with roughly 70% of the information you wish you had. If you’re always waiting for 90%, you’ll move too slowly. And besides, the costs of being wrong are usually less than you think, so long as you quickly course-correct.3
Increasing the tempo isn’t just about working harder. You need to change how you work too. The need for speed is one reason why we have a meeting-skeptical culture at Write of Passage. A team member recently called for a kickoff meeting to initiate a production project. I immediately jumped in. Why meet in five days when you can spend five minutes writing down what assets you need, and start the project 24 hours later? In the end, we finished the project before the kickoff meeting would’ve even happened.
When a meeting needs to happen, we make sure it happens well. Preparedness enables speed, which is why every meeting needs an agenda linked in the invite. If there’s a meeting on my calendar without one, I’ll cancel it.
A clear vision is another way to fight incrementalism. The early slogan for the iPod mini was “1,000 songs in your pocket.” The clearer and more ambitious the vision, the less you can succeed with incremental thinking. This is one reason why we value clear writing so much at Write of Passage. When an organization’s mission is well defined, people feel it down to their bones. They’ll fight for the company.
Think of the SpaceX employees who move their families to Brownsville, Texas so they can someday make humanity a multi-planetary species. Incremental thinking won’t get people to Mars either. The grandeur of the mission led SpaceX to build reusable rockets. Until then, astronauts only wanted to fly in new rockets. They didn’t trust ones that’d been used before. Now they prefer ones that’ve been used before because they’re “battle-tested.” Launches are also an order of magnitude cheaper now that you don’t need to build a new rocket every time you want to go to space.
Move fast, but don’t rush. Compress cycle times. Everything speeds up once the cadence changes. With speed comes energy and a culture of Hearts on Fire.
2. Raise the Standards
I’ll never forget a conference I once attended, hosted by Stripe CEO Patrick Collison. When I showed up, I was handed a white card with eight bullet points. The first seven had standard information like meal times and lodging directions. It was the point at the bottom that caught my attention. It said, “If anything isn’t impeccably perfect, please contact me immediately.”
Most conferences would’ve written “if something is wrong.” Patrick’s standard was much higher. If this was the standard he brought to a casual weekend conference, imagine the one he brings to Stripe.
Steve Jobs had the same high standards. He had two classifications for quality: “insanely great” or “total shit.” There was no middle ground. A company’s propensity to cave to the creep of mediocrity is determined by what they deem acceptable. Leaders must refuse mediocre outcomes.
People usually know when their work is mediocre. When people present projects to Slootman, he asks questions like: “Are you thrilled with this? Do you absolutely love it?” If people don’t respond with raging enthusiasm, he asks them to try again.
Most managers set a low bar with murky expectations. Slootman sets a high bar with clear standards of success and failure.
Slootman’s compensation philosophy reflected his performance culture. All of his employees have a compensation review at the end of every quarter. Bonuses are divided into a pool, depending on how well the company performs. His managers aren’t allowed to pass out an equal share. He insists on a bell-shaped distribution curve to reflect the delta between high and low performers. The problem is that, at most companies, the A-players are under-paid. To pay your top performers more, you have to pay low-performing ones less. We’re going to adopt similar principles at Write of Passage.
At most companies, employees can receive bonuses without earning them. Bonuses are paid so predictably that people effectively see them as base pay. This, Slootman says, is the sure sign of an “Entitlement Culture.”
Bonuses aren’t guaranteed because the company’s success isn’t either. Market forces are always shifting. Upstarts are trying to displace you. Competitors are gunning for your market share. If instability makes people uncomfortable, they belong at the California DMV, not at an Amp’d Up organization.
3. Narrow the Focus
You can’t increase the tempo and raise standards unless you also narrow the focus.
This principle is the most misunderstood. If you don’t take it seriously, you’ll think Slootman is telling you to work so hard that you become a slave, which isn’t the case.
Focus goes against our human nature. Most teams are scatter-brained. They refuse to commit and spread themselves thinly across too many priorities (many of which are ill-defined). Your job as a leader is to direct people to what’s ultimately important.
Narrow focus is also the result of clear thinking. It’s the leadership’s job to distill things down to their essentials. If leaders can’t communicate priorities at the top, how distorted will the thinking be for the rest of the team?
At Write of Passage, we say “projects are power laws.” The most important projects are orders of magnitude more important than average ones. It’s the job of leadership to identify pressure points in the company. To relieve tension in the body, massage therapists apply pressure to specific areas. When they find the spot, they don’t need much pressure to make a big impact.
Murky thinking prevents prioritization. Just as knowing human anatomy helps a massage therapist find pressure points, you’ll only know what to prioritize if you know the anatomy of your company.
Left to their own devices, people will work on easy and sexy (but incremental) problems. You can’t let this happen. You have to keep people focused on the levers that move the business the most.
Early on in the history of Write of Passage, we were guided by a quote from Jeff Weinstein at Stripe: “Solve problems 1 and 2, and let the other 98 burn.” There will always be too much to fix. Stripe co-founder John Collison once advised people to “be stuck more.” It’s good to ruminate on really hard problems. But if you’re averse to being stuck, you won’t persist through the pain that leads to an important breakthrough.
People resist focus because they can’t decide what’s important. Prioritization scares them. They get Shiny Object Syndrome, where they flock to the hot new thing instead of doubling, tripling, and quadrupling down on what ultimately matters. Everybody’s scope will expand unless you constrain it with clear and concrete goals.
My friend Joe, the principal of Alpha School, says his three commitments over and over again because repetition is the twin sister of prioritization.4 If you can’t remember it, you can’t prioritize it. This is why nearly every successful entrepreneur masters the art of repetition. They’re memelords — they identify the most important variables for their company, codify them into principles, and relentlessly repeat them without ever losing chutzpah. The right mantras, said repeatedly, are mind-viruses. They change society by changing minds.
Prioritize prioritization. Move faster by focusing more. A company isn’t focused enough unless it’s heartbroken about the projects it’s rejecting (this is good writing advice too).5
The sharper the point of an object, the faster it can travel. The Concorde had the sharpest point of all and is the fastest commercial jetliner of all-time. Bullet trains are the same. Focus makes organizations fast by making them pointy. Every additional project creates drag. Yes, every single one.6
Anything that departs from your core mission is a distraction. Even the most well-intended projects have hidden costs. During early Q&As at Facebook, employees would ask Zuckerberg if the company could support nonprofits directly. He always said no. Supporting them wasn’t their comparative advantage. And besides, the nonprofits would all use Facebook once it became successful, which would help them in the long run.
Force people to answer questions like: If we could only commit to one thing for the rest of the year, what would it be?
When I meet with multiple members of the same team, I like to ask: “What’s the team’s priority?” It takes two minutes. The more aligned the answers, the more focused the team (make sure to ask everybody separately though). If there’s too much variance among the answers, I know the team isn’t focused enough.
Slootman’s Ways of Working
Slootman’s philosophy is guided by a few more heuristics. Though he runs B2B companies, every principle I’ve selected below wholeheartedly applies to Write of Passage.
They reflect our weaknesses as a company, such as our fear of confrontation, hesitation to let go of poor performers, and our tendency to take on too many projects at once. Following them will also help us build a culture of Radical Candor.
Leadership is Confrontation
Slootman was once asked to talk about a confrontation that stands out. To which, he replied: “My whole life is confrontation.”
To be clear, a confrontation is not an argument or an attack. Confrontations are about facing the problem head-on. They should be calm and respectful, but direct. Each one should be done with High Care, High Empathy, and Low Emotion. Arguments are just the opposite. They’re born out of Low Care, Low Empathy, and High Emotion.
Leaders are always confronting people because a company can only Amp It Up if its leadership upholds the quality bar. Every meeting, every encounter, and every confrontation is a chance to step up the pace, raise expectations, demand excellence, and narrow the plane of attack. Investigate problems quickly. Run towards BS. Demand clarity when you sense confusion.
Yes, it is confrontational — but confronting people and problems is part and parcel of effective leadership.
Less parallelization, more prioritization.
Companies usually widen their surface area of attack as they grow. They distract themselves by taking on too many projects at once. Taken in isolation, each one is seen as only a small addition with no opportunity costs. But collectively, the organization loses its focus, until employees feel like they’re swimming in glue.
Working sequentially is one solution. Say you have ten projects you want to complete. One strategy is to start all of them at the same time. On the other end of the spectrum, you can work on one at a time, and move onto the next project only after you’ve finished the preceding one (which Slootman calls “working sequentially”).
Doing so forces you to prioritize. By encouraging debate about what projects to pursue and the tradeoffs that’ll result from such decisions, it clarifies what’s important in the organization.
Operators Should Run Strategy
When we were hiring for a Chief Operations Officer, we spoke with one candidate who proudly called himself a strategist. He didn’t want to do any of the actual work. He wanted to talk and whiteboard instead. We decided not to hire him because we wanted more of a hands-on contributor. And boy, I’m glad that’s what we did.
Strategy is important, but you shouldn’t hire “strategists.” Operators should set the strategy instead. The problem is that operators and strategists have misaligned incentives. Slootman says that great operators live, breathe, and own their strategies.
Strategy begins at the top.7 The Chief Executive Officer is the Chief Strategy Officer too. Many companies employ people who do nothing but set strategy. They’re effectively in-house consultants with no operational responsibilities. When the going gets tough, some of them even delegate their strategy to suits at consulting firms who can tell them what to do.
Hire Drivers, Not Passengers
Every company makes hiring mistakes. Most first-time founders fire poor performers too slowly. It’s not the C-players who kill your organization. Everybody knows they need to go. It’s the B-players who destroy it. They’re the mediocre ones who are good enough to keep around, but they’re lethargic. They slow organizations down by making them bulky.
And the decline doesn’t just come from slowness. It comes from a failure to uphold the quality bar too. Standards fall. The work loses its magic. When commitment to excellence fades, the top performers look for other jobs.8
B-players are cockroaches. Like carbon monoxide, they unknowingly kill you while you’re asleep.
By keeping B-players, you’re repelling A-players. People resent slackers at work just as they resented slackers on group projects in school. High-performers want to work with people who are as talented and committed to the mission as they are. Being overly compassionate with under-performing employees in the short term leads to destruction in the long term.
Slootman makes the distinction between drivers and passengers.
Passengers are people who ride the company’s momentum without contributing to it. They’re absent and indifferent. They rarely take initiative or provide input. Since their survival strategy is to avoid trouble, they don’t push back against faulty logic. And they are dead weight.
Once you remove the passengers, the pace and energy increase. As somebody said to me recently, “I’ve never fired somebody and not had their replacement be better.”
Hire drivers. They get satisfaction from making things happen, not from blending in. They increase the tempo, confront poor performance, are quick to stand up for the company when something’s not right, and feel a strong sense of ownership. This is why, at Write of Passage, we will forever reward clear and concrete feedback, especially when it’s delivered with care.
How the Amp It Up System Fits Together
Slootman’s system is a triad. Each pillar amplifies the other ones. Slootman asks: “How much faster do you run? How much higher are your standards? How hard do you focus?”
Narrow focus is the hardest one to do. If you try to increase the tempo and raise standards without narrowing your focus, you’ll burn yourself out and ship sloppy work. Do way less, but do it faster and better.
Don’t fully optimize for one variable at the expense of the others. Solely obsess over speed and you’ll compromise high standards. A lack of context, documentation, clear communication, and getting the right people involved can lead to things breaking and negative downstream effects. If you feel like speed and quality are in tension, you should probably narrow the focus.
On the topic of focus, I once heard a story about a billionaire who used to share a different message every time he spoke to his company. He employed smart people and thought they wanted novelty. That changed when one day, a trusted mentor looked him in the eye and said, “You’re doing it totally wrong. Pick a simple message and say it over and over again.”
His next all-hands talk was at the company holiday party. He was so nervous to repeat a simple message and potentially look like an idiot in front of the entire company that he got wasted before he went on stage. But once he got up there, he stuck to the plan. His message was simple enough to summarize in one sentence. People loved it. Since then, he hasn’t stopped repeating the same message over and over again. 25 years after the holiday party talk, he insists that a key to his success is sloganizing everything and repeating the same basic mantras.
Amp It Up is one of those mantras for us at Write of Passage. When you apply the Amp It Up philosophy, people radiate ambition, urgency, boldness, and Hearts on Fire. Increase the tempo, raise the standards, narrow the focus.
- As Venkatesh Rao once wrote: “Sustainable growth only comes from renewal of core. Otherwise you’re not growing, you’re harvesting. Discovery vs growth as an either/or is the ossification trap.”
- The more concrete the vision, the more inspiring it’ll be. In the case of Amazon, it’s hard to get excited about another online bookstore. It’s easy to get excited about “The Everything Store.”
- In the war against incrementalism, Slootman likes to ask CEOs: “How fast can the company grow if they pull all the stops? Can the business start amping up and go [exponential] at some point? When?” Rarely do they have compelling answers to these questions, which implies a lack of transcendent thinking.
- Alpha’s commitments are (1) love school, (2) learn twice as fast, and (3) learn life skills. We’ve adopted something similar for our Flagship program.
- Stephen King famously said “kill your darlings.”
- At Google X, their Moonshots division, they dedicate one day per year to celebrating the projects they’ve killed because it means they’re focusing.
- I once had a conversation with a very successful public equities investor. When a friend successfully refuted his argument, he immediately changed his mind. No pride. No ego. No emotional attachment. The ability to change your mind is a surprisingly rare skill, and it’s one reason why he’s such a successful investor. Leaders must be able to change their minds too. You don’t get points for coming up with the solution. You get points for being right and building a successful business. It doesn’t matter who comes up with the idea. In business, as with investing, you’re going to get things wrong. It’s okay if you’re quick to recognize and correct your mistakes.
- You can only get higher standards and faster speeds if you narrow the focus.