Post-It Notes and listening – the tools of communication for your startup

Dr. Spencer Silver, the co-inventor of Post-it Notes, died recently. He created the adhesive that lets the small, square notes stick to surfaces. They became one of the most ubiquitous office products ever conceived.

In 1968, working as a research scientist at 3M, Silver was attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive to be used in aircraft construction. Instead, he accidentally created a ‘low-tack’, reusable, pressure sensitive adhesive. A gobbledygook explanation of the chemical process to create this is thermoset your resin, mix in an epoxide and add a complex glucose derivative during the emulsification process. It sounds more like something you would use to repair your broken dining room chair than adhesive required for Post-it Notes.

For five years, Silver promoted his ‘solution to a problem that did not appear to exist’ within 3M but failed to gain acceptance. Then, in 1974, a colleague, Art Fry, came up with the idea of using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymnbook so that it didn’t tear the pages when removed. Fry utilised 3M’s officially sanctioned ‘permitted bootlegging’ policy to develop the idea. Fry tested a similar bookmark on some co-workers, with positive results.

But he needed more proof that there was a product 3M might want to pursue, so Fry sent a report to his supervisor with a note on the front written on a piece of the bookmark; the supervisor responded on the same piece of paper, with the adhesive on part of the other side, and returned it. It was the eureka moment.

But 3M still weren’t so sure. A test release in 1977 of Press ‘n Peel, as the product flopped with consumers, who were uncertain about the idea of repositionable paper squares. But the following year 3M had greater success when they flooded offices in Boise, Idaho with free samples: 90% of the recipients said they would buy them.

Post-it Notes were launched in 1979, originally in the form of little canary-yellow pads, but later became available in more hues and sizes and become a ubiquitous office product. There are currently more than 3,000 Post-it Brand products globally.

If it weren’t for Silver’s persistence, Post-it Notes ever would never have taken over our desks, refrigerators and notebooks. In a way, Silver is responsible for us remembering to pick up eggs on the way home from work, or the date and time of an important meeting. Without Post-its, imagine how many more of us would forget doctor’s appointments or to make those return phone calls.

We’re all familiar with the product, but on my 2017 visit to New York I witnessed a remarkable use of Post-It Notes, with 5,000+ on the walls of Union Square subway, left as public statements after the presidential election result, when a majority of New Yorkers voted against President-elect Trump.

Project organiser Matthew Chavez called it the ‘Subway Therapy’ project that allowed New Yorkers to express their feelings. Chavez brought a stack of sticky notes to the 14th Street station and started the installation in the underground passageway that connects the 1 train to the L train, handing out the notes for people to vent their emotions onto the subway wall.

The Post-It Notes expressed a range of emotions and feelings, from hope and optimism to the crude and rude, some creative, others highly personal. They captured the feeling of the city immediately after the election. The project attracted the attention of City Governor Cuomo, who visited the station to leave his own note that included the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty’s tablet.

I recall spending an hour reading them, a powerful symbol of the community voice. They made compelling reading. It was a piece of public realm art that helped people to think about new ways of connection with each other and expressing themselves. It took me five minutes to walk from one end to the other. Eventually the New-York Historical Society removed the notes from the walls and stored them on mylar sheets in archive boxes to be digitised as potent artefacts of everyday life.

In a city of 8 million people, it’s hard to share your opinion, but this worked. You will not divide us. Love is everything. Another said It doesn’t end today.Michelle Obama’s now famous declaration, If they go low, we go high, was on there.Another offered soothing words: Everything will be alright. But a few feet over, another person wasn’t so sure: What do we do now?There was an answer amid the sea of impromptu messages. We’ve been through worse (9/11) and the city will unite, the light pink sticky note said. We will get through this together because love trumps hate.

It was hard to move in the 14th Street-Union Square subway. Weeks after the election result, crowds of people stopped to take in the vibrant rainbow of Post-It Notes curling against the blanketed walls, interrupting the flow of the normal New York hustle and bustle.

We might look at Post-it Notes as simple, useful tools for everyday life, but this method of communication really captured the spirit and the needs of New Yorkers at that particular moment, with the notes expressing frustration, solidarity and sympathy.

From a business perspective, the Subway Therapy project showed the importance of providing a platform to communicate with and listen to an audience. For a startup, there is nothing more important than engagement with early customers, even if their message isn’t something you want to hear. You may hear what they have to say, but do you really listen? For me, hearing means registering the information but not doing much about it. Listening, on the other hand, means understanding and reacting in a meaningful manner.

I realised the crucial value of listening when working with startups developing their early prototypes and seeking feedback from their early adopters. I learned that they had the answers to the challenges we faced – all we had to do was to listen – and then act. Listening is an art, you have to step back from your own views, but when done correctly it can deliver tremendously valuable outcomes for a startup.

What does listening to your customers say to them? It says that you care, you are interested and respectful of their opinion and how it can shape your venture. Be open minded, looking to learn and understand their perspective. After all, you started your business to win customers, so make sure you make them feel valuable. By listening, you are more likely to gain customer loyalty, and win more business.

Today’s customers are truly empowered and are able to articulate and search for solutions to their problems and choices like never before. With this in mind, monitoring and analysis of customer sentiment is a crucial part of growing your startup. Whether positive or negative, if you listen to what your customers are saying then you’ll be in the best position to learn and grow.

Listening and analysing customer feedback contributes to product development and marketing strategies to reflect more of what your customers want, thus providing a platform for customer centric growth strategies. Listening to your customers’ voice doesn’t have to be difficult, and it’s easy to act on. The voice of the customer is one of the most important tools that a startup has in its armoury.

Living in your customers’ world enables you to gather insights to fuel better decisions. It creates opportunities to strengthen relationships and understanding, capturing customer’s expectations, preferences and aversions. It is also often a corollary to your own, possibly blinkered bias.

Starbucks has tapped into the importance of being valued in a unique way through the Can I have your name? approach when you enter their coffee shop. At first disruptive and peculiar, it is now hard for other brands to copy that is the name of the customer that appears handwritten on the cup. It is human, personal, immediately engaging and wonderfully imperfect, and in many ways more effective than communication based on algorithms.

However, the biggest communication challenge is the reality that often do not listen to understand, we listen to reply. So, what are the habits of a good listener? How do people with good listening skills tune in?  Good listening is much more than being silent when the other person talks. Good listening includes interactions that build a person’s self-esteem, creating engaged, collaborative conversations. A good listener will listen not only to what is being said, but also to what is left unsaid or only partially said. They listen for the silence too.

So, let’s look at good listening techniques to employ when engaging with your startup’s early customers:

Stop Talking: first impressions count  If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear – Mark Twain. Don’t talk, listen. You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Research by Willis and Todorov shows it takes 0.1 seconds for an initial judgement, whilst Morris and Schnabel’s research shows a final decision is made in just seven seconds. When somebody else is talking listen to what they are saying, do not interrupt, talk over them or finish their sentences for them. The quietest people have the loudest minds – Stephen Hawking

Be fully in the moment – be an active listener Focus on the speaker, put other things out of mind. We are easily distracted by other thoughts – what’s for lunch, what time is my train, is it going to rain – put other thoughts out of mind and concentrate on the messages that are being communicated. Focus on what is being said. Don’t doodle, shuffle papers, gaze out the windows or similar. Avoid unnecessary interruptions. These behaviours disrupt the listening process and send messages to the speaker that you are bored or distracted.

It’s not what, but how it’s said  Recall Albert Mehrabian’s famous communication model: 7% of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38% through tone of voice, and 55% through body language. Don’t underestimate the power and tone of voice to make a positive impression, but it’s also the non-verbal aspects of communication here too, and the congruence of the three elements identified by Mehrabian.

Sit their side of the table, be curious and listen for ideas Empathise, try to understand the other person’s point of view. Look at issues from their perspective. Let go of your preconceived ideas. By having an open mind, we can more fully empathise with the speaker, which they will recognise. You need to get the whole picture, not just isolated bits and pieces. One of the most difficult aspects of listening is the ability to link together pieces of information to reveal the ideas of others. Be curious and create the full picture.

Show you’ve picked up on the key points After a period in the conversation, show that you’ve been listening by replaying back a few key points raised so far, and ask them to clarify anything that you did not understand. This gives the speaker confidence that you are taking the conversation seriously. A doctor listens to form his diagnosis before reaching for the prescription pad.

Maintain eye contact Good listening starts with paying attention and making good eye contact. Too much eye contact can make us look domineering and intimidating, too little makes us appear indifferent, uneasy or insincere. Use direct eye contact 50% of the time during a conversation (as a rule of thumb), this will produce a feeling of likeability and trust – and smile, the physical act of smiling makes you keep eye contact automatically.

But back to the Post-It Notes, and the memorable collection on the NYC subway. It’s unlikely that Trump was bothered about the Subway Therapy installation, he was unlikely to listen. As Woodrow Wilson said, the ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people. Then again, big egos have little ears in my experience.

Listening to customers is vital for a startup, but our passion for ‘our thing’ means we don’t listen to understand, we listen to reply. When we listen with curiosity, we listen for what’s behind the words. The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand – and thus win customers – is to listen to them.

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