Good to Great to Excellent: A Roadmap

By Jason Calacanis

I've spent the past two decades building products. As a "builder" your career generally starts with idea generation. "Wouldn't the world be better if you could press a button and A happened?" or "Why does A work like B when it should just do C?" are the non-stop tormentors of founders.

For as long as I can remember, I have tried to imagine how everything I looked at could be improved. That's how I approached life, and I made a bunch of products I felt were great.

And while it was never a struggle for me to conceive products, it certainly was a bit of a struggle to launch them early on (getting funding, building a team, finding office space -- blocking-and-tackling type issues). Later on it became easy to launch them (folks wanted to work with me, angel investing got easier after I made some folks a 15x return in 12 months, etc), and the challenge was to make them good.

Now it turns out starting companies and making good or great products is not so hard -- making them excellent is.

I realized that great is the starting line, not the goal.  

"You made something great in a world that wants excellent," I keep reminding myself.

I've gotten more sustained feedback on the "Age of Excellence" piece I wrote on April 25, 2012 than perhaps any other piece of written. Thanks for all the insights.

The question that inevitably comes up after reading the piece: "How do you make something excellent?"

I've been focusing on this question for the past year, and I've got some early thoughts on the journey "Good to Great to Excellent."

[ Yes, I'm referring to "Good to Great," the excellent book by Jim Collins. Go read it or listen to it on Audible -- an excellent product itself. ]

I've been working on "Great to Excellent" techniques for all aspects of my professional life: my hosting ability on "This Week in Startups," angel investing, the LAUNCH Festival and my "day job" Mahalo.

Here I'll focus on what I've done over the past year at Mahalo.

For background, Mahalo started with a vision of "human powered search + content" which had nice, moderate -- but not breakout -- success. We hit 15M uniques 18 months ago with our content+search product, but it was largely based on "good content" combined with "excellent SEO." It wasn't fully satisfying to me. The Google Panda update didn't help us, but we could have kept reworking around SEO -- just didn't personally feel worth it, to be honest. I was fried by having my fate in the hands of an anonymous, and sometimes evil, little algorithm.  

So I pivoted the company hard toward building something that could be excellent and satisfying to me: educational apps. I just love my iPad, I love learning and it feels like education + video + tablets + social = the future (aka big win) to me. The puck is moving to the center of those four things in my opinion -- I might be wrong, but I doubt it as smart folks agree.   

Our 1.0 Apps looked something like this "Learn Guitar" app, which I would say is a 7 or 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. If you forced me to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 with no chance at voting an 8, I would give it a 7 not a 9. It would be close, and it maintains a 4.5/5 star rating (it would be more if we didn't have early technical issues).

It's certainly a good product an an amazing price, and perhaps to some folks it's great, but it's not excellent.

We focused really hard on making better graphics, video, trailers, iBooks and landing pages, and if you look at this "Learn Violin" app I can tell you without reservation it's a 9. It's the best product for learning violin in the App Store hands down at an absurdly great price.

How did we get there? That's what I want to explain in this email.

Jumping from a 6 to 7 is easy.

Jumping from 7 to 8 is hard.

Leaping from an 8 to 9 is mind-blowingly difficult.

From 9 to 10? I actually don't exactly know what the jump from 9 to 10 requires, as I'm reserving 10 for some magical moment that happens when you channel the spirit of Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, da Vinci or Jesus (in that order).

Let's concern ourselves with simply ok (6), good (7), great (8) and excellent (9). A 10 is JobsMuskDivinci-level. I'm going to assume no one reading this has made something as excellent as the iPad, docked with the space station, painted the Mona Lisa or created the model S.

I mean, if you're making a 10 / 10 you don't subscribe to my newsletter -- you're too busy. No offense intended to you or me! We're all mortals figuring this out, right?

Here are a couple of tips. Please bang away at them and add to them, as this is just the start of the discussion in my mind.  

1. Loyalty to progress over people

The people who got you from good to great are, generally, not the folks who will get you from great to excellent.

Harsh but true.

As entrepreneurs we like to think we can push and prod -- perhaps even inspire -- our teams to excellence. While it's true that you can make people 10% or 20% better than they are in a short period of time, the fact is you need stars to get you to the next level.

On a practical basis, i.e. the talent-constrained world we live in, you are going to have to throw the concept of loyalty out the window. You need to flip a switch in your brain that says loyalty to people is best embodied by "loyalty to excellence."

This means that if your early team succeeds in getting your product from a 6 or 7 to an 8, it is probably not going to get to a 9. Harsh. This goes for the founder themselves in some cases: just because you're the leader who got the product from A to B doesn't mean you're the gal to get it from B to C (notice I used the word 'gal' there to be gender-awareful).

This is generally uncomfortable because you're firing folks -- or putting someone above them -- for doing a good job: "Thank you for getting our product from a 7 to and 8 -- we're replacing you!" or "Thank you for getting our product from a 6 to an 8 -- you've got a new boss!"

Knicks coach Pat Riley got average players like John Starks to play way over his pay grade, but even the master manipulator couldn't make him Michael Jordan. Phil Jackson took a different approach: he chose to coach Michael Jordan, and then Kobe and Shaq. Phil won a lot more rings by selecting stars instead of overachievers.
The challenge of this philosophy is that if folks feel they're going to be replaced, or have people brought in above them, they can start to panic; in some cases they might become bitter. There's an easy solution for this, tell them, "I'm sure you want to get the product to a 10 and will embrace adding any team member who can get us there -- even if they are more talented than you and become your boss."

If someone responds negatively to that -- and some will -- you need to get them off the team. Anyone who doesn't want the team to get better is not a team player. Even if they do embrace the stars coming in, they are going to need to understand it might lessen their role. So be it: winning is what matters.

Now, the question that will come up is "Who says that a particularly person can only reach X-level of work?" The answer is complicated, but basically it's time and resources. Even if you believe anyone can reach a 9 or 10 level of work, you have to ask yourself, "Do I have the time  and resources to mentor this person to break through their current 8 ceiling before my startup runs out of money and/or gets clobbered by the gal across the street who was more cutthroat and just hired the 9-level contributor while I mentored the 8?"

We live in cutthroat times. Competition is fiercer, winners win more and every vertical has many more losers.   

2. Objectively scoring yourself

Measuring the progress you make in your product is critical. There are tons of ways to do this from net promoter score to watching your actual reviews in the App Store.

Another way is to say, "find me something better," then debate why it's better. I love this technique, and I do it myself over and over again. Interestingly, I find that average and good people don't seem to find better versions of their products as often as great or excellent people do. I wonder why? Is it that they don't have an eye for it, or if they are scared to actually show how much better a product could be?

A culture of debating is not easy to form, and objectively scoring stuff is hard, but important, work. I constantly change voting criteria and methods, shaking things up so I can find out what people really think.

I might do a test and say "which is better, A or B" in one meeting, then do a blind "score this on 1 to 10 on a piece of paper" in the next. Then I'll ask folks to defend their scores.

In a recent meeting I had a senior leader score how well folks were scoring. Insane? Perhaps, but when this person called out two people for holding back--"You two are the weakest debaters," he said -- those two folks unloaded with their actual thoughts. It became wildly productive.

After months of forcing folks to score and debate stuff in a maddening way, we actually started to understand why certain apps were better than others.

3. Create a score floor

In January of this year I set a floor for releasing products of "8 or better." This mean holding back products that didn't hit that score. This lead to a lot of tension in company, but good tension where some folks wanted to get stuff out the door and others wanted to make the stuff better.

It can get ugly if you set a "forcing function" like this, but boy does it work. Sometimes pressure can produce increased performance; other times it cripples people. Here's a good read on it; sadly, it's about JFK Jr.

Oh yeah, while everyone gets a score someone needs to be the final say. That's the founders job to say, "This isn't good enough, it's a 7 we're not releasing it." Over time it becomes easy to figure out who and what is bringing your down and pulling you up -- so you can take action. 7s go away, 8s become standard and folks start getting pulled into the 9s.

4. Discipline challenges  

Like elite athletes, startups can benefit from discipline. One of my teams has a 7AM start time and "standup meeting" (10 or 20 minutes of what's going on right after they get in). They magically became the most productive team. So, after a couple of months seeing that team perform so well, two other teams created an 8am and 9am start time (9am isn't some massive accomplishment, I know, but most startups are moving to "Come in when you like" and "We pay for your vacation!" and "We don't count vacation days!" as their recruiting tactics. I'd be concerned about these kind of approaches attracting the 7s and not the 9s as much as they attract the 9s).

Then folks started tracking their time in an App called Harvest. Now we're actually reviewing time spent per project, and it's leading to insights around how longs things should take and why one performer is running the table on another (e.g., they have a special technique).

All of this is under the "measure it so you can manage it" framework. And it's not top down, it's folks who are winners who want to win bigger.

Challenge yourself and your teams with additional discipline and see if it impacts product. In a hot talent market like this, people are scared to impose discipline on teams, but the fact is elite folks want elite results and understand it comes from challenging standards. Enforce standards and let the weaker folks opt out.

5. 15Five forcing function

We've been using a weekly review system called 15Five at Mahalo for a couple of months now [ see the launch in March ]. It challenges folks to answer four or five short questions in about 15 minutes: what's going well, what's not going well, any great ideas, how are you feeling, etc.

Managers then take five minutes to review their people before forwarding their 15Five on to their manager -- with highlights of the best comments from their teams.

Every week I spend two hours on the weekend reviewing every single team member's 15Five. Folks are honest about the tiniest, and biggest, things bugging them. They could have a problem with the tea selection, office temperature, memory on their computer or the quality of another team member's contribution.

It forces management to address these issues, and while it would be impossible to meet for 15 minutes with 40 folks, it's really easy to review 40 folks for 3-5 minutes each. I can't say enough good things about 15Five. You should try it: the truth shall set you free.

6. Hire mustangs, not mules

Once you've got a high-performing team that embraces performance, you're going to want to make sure the pace keeps increasing and fight against folks slowing it down. In the rush "to get staffed up," folks will sometimes add people to just fill positions. Huge mistake.

My people have started saying things like, "Let's hire someone who is a better video editor than everyone else already on the team" and "Let's find a developer who has 10x the experience of our most experienced iOS developer!"

Essentially, they've embraced the idea of landing more Kobes and LeBrons and put the evolution of the product over their own short-term power base and importance. That's awesome if you can get there, and in terms of leaders, the best in my experience hire folks who are much better than themselves at certain functions [ e.g., Steve Jobs hiring Tim Cook ].

But to get your whole team -- from top to bottom -- to apply this standard? That's hard, but it's exhilarating once they do.

7. Find your weakest quality and make it your biggest strength

I make a list of the main functions of my startups and rank them, So, for example This Week in Startups did a great job with sponsorships, had an awesome host and solid video, but our audio and guests were lagging a couple of months ago.

I told the team I want our audio to be the absolute best in the world, and they did a month of testing. Now our audio quality is becoming our biggest strength. Folks say our new microphones make us sound like an audiobook or professional radio show. We're not perfect yet, but we're close.

We figured out being in Los Angeles was a huge limitation to our guests, so I started making regular trips to the Valley and getting the best possible guests.

At Mahalo six months ago, our weakest link was design and now it's our biggest strength. Right now our marketing (i.e. SEM, PR, etc) is our weak link and in six months it will -- hopefully -- be our biggest strength. 

If you get the thing that's number 7 on your list of 7 skills to be number-one, everything just feels better inside your organization. Folks feel more confident when they see a leader take the weakest link and flip it to the biggest strength in short order.

In conclusion

I don't have the "good to great to excellent" road map figured out, but I'm forcing myself to really think about organizational best practices for getting from great to excellent. Good to great is too easy. Entrepreneurs in today's hyper-competitive market have to strive for excellence.


a) What's your best great-to-excellent technique?
b) What did I get right or wrong in this email?

all the best, @jason

PS - The is another example of trying to take something great (techmeme) and make it excellent. I'd give the ticker a solid 8.5 right now. We should get to a 9 easily when I find a developer to make the "live CMS" I'm dreaming of.

PPS - The LAUNCH Festival hit a 9 last year when judges and jury members invested $2M in the companies. I might actually get it to 9.5 when I announced two big innovations for it next week (or the week after).