Those skilled in the art of BS detection can tell you that 99% of company mission, vision, and values statements are meaningless. For corporate ideals to be more than just blatant-hypocrisy-in-poster-form, leadership has to build them into the company’s operating systems: how they hire/fire/promote, how they prioritize product investments, treat customers, make decisions around funding and acquisitions, and more.
Even rarer: the folks in charge have to stick to these commitments, especially in the face of financial loss.
That is the sole measurement of real values. When the principles you claim to believe in conflict with opportunities to make more, do you turn down the cash? Or sacrifice those beliefs and tell yourself that, say, funding disinformation is worth it for the millions? At that point, just say your values are “money and also more money.” At least it’s honest.
At SparkToro, we won’t always be perfect. But we will always strive to be that 1%. Because we believe three things:
- Ideals matter more to us than finances. We’ve chosen to build a small, zebra-not-unicorn business in spite of offers for bigger paychecks; we’re not going to waste that choice after coming so far.
- We’re convinced that over the long-term (decades, not months or years), organizations that live up to their values can outperform those who don’t (not that they always do, but that they have the ability, i.e. a lack of ethics is not a competitive advantage).
- Being held accountable by your customers and community is a superb forcing function (they’ll hold your feet to the fire if you say one thing and do another), and a great way to do marketing (because public values attract like-minded fans).
In the spirit of these beliefs, and because SparkToro has been around long enough to establish and apply real values, it’s time for us to share these publicly. We expect to make mistakes, to be imperfect, and to get called out when we falter. But unless you, our customers and community, know the standards we expect to uphold, you cannot hold us to account.
SparkToro’s Values: BELUX
We’ll readily admit that acronyms are cheesy. But, they’re also easy to remember (Roy G Biv, anyone?). They give us a shorthand way of communicating, and so despite the cheesiness (or even pretention) of values-in-acronym-form, we have one: BELUX—it stands for…
In younger years, we made unjustified sacrifices for work. We put in counterproductive hours that burned us out. We took on projects, clients, and responsibilities to which we should have said no. We made unhealthy choices at the behest of bosses, investors, partners, or demanding customers. We want to be done with that.
For example, when you email SparkToro support and ask us for a demo, you’ll get a response like this (usually from Rand or Amanda, sometimes even from Casey):
It’s not that we hate video calls with potential customers; we love ’em! It’s that we realize the three of us cannot reasonably handle the extra hours each week of scheduling and giving demos. Saying “yes,” would cost time we need to make the product better, reach more people, and invest in scalable resources. Plus, we’re not excited about building a business that relies on unreasonable hours. Plenty of startups do that already—taking pride in their 70-hour workweeks, expecting similarly unreasonable commitments from anyone who joins their team.
That’s not us. We believe in Chill Work. What’s more, we’re convinced that by working fewer, higher-quality hours, we make better decisions, and build a more scalable, resilient business (it also makes us far more pleasant people).
So, we set boundaries.
SparkToro never wants employees (or founders) to feel overwhelmed. Sometimes we need to knock off early, take time off for family or health, play a 30-minute Hades run after a stressful webinar, or break out of a bad headspace where tasks take 10X longer now than they will later. We trust each other to get things done when they need to be done—not to rush just for the sake of rushing. The opposite of hustle is deliberation, and that’s what we believe fosters our best work and creates the workplace we want.
We rely on everyone who works here (now, and in the future) to establish boundaries. For example:
- To tell each other what we can and cannot accomplish in a given timeframe
- To let each other know when they’re unavailable
- To prioritize what they need to stay healthy and happy
- To be largely independent, needing almost no input from a boss or team member to get their work done
In turn, we all agree to respect those boundaries, and create a warm and welcoming environment. Most of us have been our own bosses before—we know how to get work done, and don’t need anyone else coming in, checking up on us, and donking things up.
Boundaries apply to more than just our team and work, they’re also core to our product. When you research an audience in SparkToro, we anonymize and aggregate that data. We *don’t* tell you who is in that audience, because (even though we only crawl public profiles) that would tread on boundaries. Aggressive sales teams might use SparkToro to spam everyone they could find. Not cool.
We’re happy to show statistical numbers about these #carpentry folks, but we don’t violate boundaries by showing who they are
SparkToro collects a tremendous amount of data, and we believe in guarding it responsibly. We have minimum thresholds for returning results (so no one could identify a single person within an audience). Information that could be used in a discriminatory way—race, religion, or sexual orientation—won’t be included in our product (even if that information is public). This is also why we don’t allow law enforcement agencies, or organizations with a history of discrimination to use our product (details in our statement about racial injustice).
Finally, when it comes to our investors, we’ve got boundaries there, too. We provide regular updates, engage in profit-sharing with them, and value their feedback. But, SparkToro has no board of directors nor any preferred class of shares. Rand is SparkToro’s CEO—no one has the power to change that but him. It’s a boundary Rand set with Casey, our investors, and our attorney after painful past experiences.
The kind of audience research technology we offer used to only be available to companies with huge budgets and the capabilities to crawl and process large-scale web data. These big players often spend the bulk of their marketing dollars on low-ROI channels like Facebook, Google, and Amazon (who—spoiler!—don’t need extra help to own the market).
We’re tired of money being handed back and forth between rich corporations and sector-dominating monopolies like a weird game of late-stage capitalism hot potato. Honestly, it’s enough to make us storm the Bastille. But, since we can’t do that, we’ve decided to make audience research available and affordable to everyone (and yes, we even have a fully-free-forever version).
Our database covers an expansive, deep set of sources of influence in almost every imaginable niche. That’s by intention—we want to help folks discover smaller creators and publications on which to spend their hard-earned advertising dollars and organic marketing/partnership efforts. What’s more, if you’re a small or medium business, those sources almost always have better ROI and will actually reach the customers you’re seeking. *Throws confetti in the air!*
This is part of why we eschewed traditional funding and instead opted to take less money from a handful of private investors. It’s why we’re engaging in profit-funded bonuses with employees as soon as we can. Because we’d rather grow a small, sustainable company that benefits a lot of people than have a big exit that only benefits a few. No one needs another big fish in a small pond. A school of happy, equal fish? That’s fine by us.
To us, long-term means the next decade, not the next quarter or fiscal year. We prioritize sustainable decisions that create decade-long value for our customers, and shy away from unproven, flavor-of-the-month style product or marketing investments (don’t expect a SparkToro NFT anytime soon).
This means thinking about our customers first—being clear and direct on pricing, limitations, and renewals (e.g. letting them know they’re about to be charged again, sending plenty of warning if a pricing structure is about to change, offering no-hassle refunds), and treating everyone, even those who cancel or never sign up, with care and respect. We don’t believe CLTV (customer lifetime value, i.e. the financial value of a party’s subscription) is just about one subscription. Our contrarian view is that when we treat people well, they’ll come back to us for audience research many times over many years; there’s nothing wrong with saving a little money on SparkToro by quitting your subscription when you don’t need us.
A long-term mindset also means we reject the traditional tech startup’s hypergrowth-focus. We want a sustainable path that allows us to grow at our own pace. Our intention is to cultivate long-term, healthy relationships with partners, contractors, and employees, even if/when they move on from SparkToro. We know that if we hire more than a handful of people, some of them will leave. That’s OK. In fact, if it’s better for them, it’s better for us, too. Someday they might come back, refer folks our way, or simply find their bliss.
The way we treat our customers and team is the same way we approach product and data. We need sources that can last a long time, information that provides real value, and a crystal clear product experience. Some software tools have been able to build fly-by-night operations with shoddy engineering, questionable data sources, and convoluted sales processes. Vague promises about how fuzzy metrics or AI-powered results were contrived might convince some buyers, but it’s not for us.
We keep things Uncomplicated. Because bells and whistles are for old timey constables in Victorian crime dramas.
Uncomplicated is the heart of our product’s philosophy: a self-serve tool with minimal need for training or explanation. SparkToro should be obvious. If it’s not, that’s on us to fix. The simplicity of this DIY approach fosters creativity in our customers; they’re figuring out how to use SparkToro for themselves—often in ways that we never could have imagined.
Our profit-sharing and bonus models are similarly uncomplicated.
“OK, so your strike price was $1.40, but the series C investors have a 2X liquidation preference so your shares are only worth…” – (insert sustained fart noise).
Look, part of the reason venture funding structures are so confusing is to hide how predatory, winner-take-all they are. We’re not about any of that nonsense. The second SparkToro pays back its investors, we all share in the profits pro-rata. If the company someday sells, everyone gets their pro-rata % of the deal. Liquidation preferences? Nope. Preferred shares? No, sir. Stock options at artificially high 409a valuations that are worthless on exit? Fuggedaboutit.
This goes for employees, too. Because we don’t believe your value starts only after you’ve vested or exercised shares, or worse, after the company “has an exit.” We think employee bonuses, founder compensation, and investors’ dividends should be easy for anyone to calculate and understand. We believe you deserve them every year you work here. We think they should be tied to the company’s annual goals, so everyone can easily see how their work contributes, and how their compensation goes up. That’s why there are no employee shares, no phantom equity, just a paycheck, benefits, and an annual goal-tied-to-a-bonus that we agree to each year (we like this recurring negotiation because it forces SparkToro, as an employer, to make every year worthwhile).
Set an Example
We learned hard lessons from our early startup rodeos, and feel like we might be onto something with this one. That’s why we’ve built such an atypical, idiosyncratic business. We hope others might try our investment structure for themselves (we’ve even made our docs public for anyone who wants to take a crack at it). We hope they’ll take our approach to valuing the lifetime experience of customers. We want them to consider building more kinds of products that level imbalanced playing fields. Or maybe they’ll just learn that you don’t need to burn the candle at both ends. That’s not even how candles work.
Setting an example means operating our business ethically, doing good and minimizing harm. It requires that we don’t do that quietly, either. To set an example demands public transparency, which can, if we’re being honest, sometimes feel icky, inauthentic, and overly-promotional. This is a tough line we’ll have to balance, sometimes with humor (e.g. our recent change in advertising policy), with charts and graphs (e.g. our 2-year retrospective), or by giving back (e.g. our launch campaign with GiveDirectly).
Education matters here, too. Amanda’s been leading the way: her Twitter account is a veritable masterclass, her blog posts (hopefully more to come soon) are eminently accessible, informative, and entertaining, and the Office Hours webinar series she created help thousands of marketers each month. Casey works tirelessly to make our product as easy-to-use as possible, incorporating feedback and suggestions into the tool every time more than a few folks write in about it. Rand, similarly, works to make SparkToro’s product education uncomplicated with micro-videos and walkthroughs.
And when our customers show us a new way of using our product, we share it – learning from their example. Because if there’s a lesson in all these damn startup scars, it’s that there’s always more to learn.
Values can sometimes sound preachy. That’s not our intent here. We don’t mean to say that *you* have to be these things, or that these beliefs are the only ethical choices. These are our values. We embrace them, we want to build a community of people with whom they resonate, and (should we ever hire more folks) we’ll expect it of them, too.
Today, we’re sharing it because these are the standards to which we expect to be held. And maybe they’ll inspire those of you who work in values-driven organizations to reflect on your own beliefs and commitments in positive ways. We’d certainly love to set an example there 😉.