Advice for Startups: Avoid the Company Policy Trap

At one time or another, there’s a good chance you have experienced the downside of experiencing an employee following company policy. For me, the instance that sticks out as most obvious to me was an occasion when I went to cash a check at the bank I visited every week, only to discover I’d left my driver’s license back at the office. The teller recognized me, but because it was bank policy not to cash a check without proper identification, I was out of luck. My lunch hour schedule prevented me from having time to go back and get my ID. Sure it was my fault for not having my ID with me, but I was no stranger to the people who worked at the bank. I was left with a bad feeling that I remember many years later.

Falling into the company policy trap can be even worse for small companies, because the the stakes are much higher. To use a hypothetical company as an example, lets say I own a video hosting service that competes with YouTube. My service charges a monthly subscription fee for a bunch of advanced features you can’t get from YouTube. Because of some exclusive distribution partnerships we worked out, our service also requires you to launch your video channel with at least 5 video segments. The 5 video policy was put in place because our distribution partners are concerned that too many video publishers launch with one video, realize it’s too much work, and abandon posting videos, which makes their network look bad. Your channel won’t be visible to the world until you have 5 video segments uploaded, although we will do the necessary configuration so that you’re live as soon as the 5 videos are ready to go.

To continue with my hypothetical example, lets say you are an artist who uses video as your medium. For your current project, you want to shoot a three minute video at exactly the same location, starting at the exact same time every day for an entire year. You want your video channel to go live starting on January 1 and continue throughout the year. Part of the experience of your project is that you need people to view videos from day 1. You can’t launch with the 5 videos I require, because our requirements do not match your vision. While we clearly spell out the requirements to everyone who joins our service, you contact customer support and request that we make your video channel live on January 1 with only 1 video.

There are two ways my video company could proceed. Customer support could respond that our policy is to require 5 videos and we refuse to make an exception. As a result you might take your business elsewhere and tell other artists that we aren’t a viable option for creative people. The other thing we could do is engage with you more directly, clarify what our concerns are about why we require 5 videos, and recognize that your goals are sound even though they don’t match up with our policy. Choosing the later course probably means you’re going to tell more people what a great service our company offers because we empowered you to succeed with your vision./p pBy being flexible in company policy when it makes sense, you can build a stronger company with rabidly loyal customers. In the hypothetical example I use, the 5 video policy exists to create a better experience for distribution partnerships, however, in the case of your art project, our company can have reasonable confidence that you will follow through because you have a track record for doing interesting art projects.

What about situations where an exception is made and the customer fails to live up to their end? There’s always that risk, but every business decision involves some risk, it’s a matter of assessing which ones will get the company closer to its goals.