Case Study #5: 💸 Stripe's Greatest Superpower (Writing in Product & Tech)
Becoming a content creator inside your company. It is often said that Data is the new oil. But I would go one layer deeper and say that “Content” is this oil’s crude form.
Welcome to the 5th edition of the Productify Case Study series. To access previous four case studies on Netflix, Booking.com, Wise and Basecamp, go here.
🚀 The ‘Why’ behind this week’s case study
It is often said that Data is the new oil. But I would go one layer deeper and say that “Content” is this oil’s crude form and it can be processed in multiple ways to create signals and insights. When you hear about the word ‘Content’, you instantly think of media/entertainment (ex. Netflix) or influencers (their writings/videos/podcasts etc.). But in the age of social media, anyone and almost everyone can create content. Even you, inside your organisation.
This week’s case study brings forward one of the most important trends in product and tech world i.e Writing.. and how to do it well. How you write would determine multiple things in future : i) Whether you get hired ii) Whether you can influence people in your organisation iii) Whether you grow in your company.
This ‘writing revolution’ is being led by two giants: Amazon and Stripe. In today’s case study, we deep-dive and learn from Stripe’s writing culture. And we are not just talking about PRDs here, we are talking about all forms of writing : one pagers, slide decks, narratives and many more ways to write.
🤩 Bonus: At the end of the case study, I will also share some great formats for you get started and write well in your organisation.
Introducing the Writing Culture at 💸 Stripe
One thing I have observed about Stripe employees (and also true to some extent for Amazon employees as well) is that they cannot stop talking about the writing culture in their company. We find out more from Brie’s (ex-Stripe) twitter account on the two Why’s behind the emphasis on writing:
1. Clarity in thinking: 🥸
”First, clarity of writing reflects clarity in thinking. Surely writing is not the only proxy for clarity in thinking, but I think it’s a good one. Jeff Bezos famously banned presentations at Amazon in favour of “Narratives.
In his words, “the reason writing a good 4 page memo is harder than ‘writing’ a 20 page powerpoint is because the narrative structure of a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what’s more important than what, and how things are related.”
2. Democratise Ideas 🔂
”..writing democratizes ideas. Anyone with an insight or idea can write it down regardless of status or access. And, anyone can read it, regardless of status or access. Stripe’s leaders explicitly open themselves up to receiving memos. I’ve seen people get hired this way!
Third, good writing scales. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen a document written in a corner of the organisation generate so much enthusiasm that it directly and meaningfully influences top-level product and company decisions”
While #1 is in general a hygiene reason to write, #2 can be disruptive to the way company operates. In my view, it can distribute the power of presenting ideas and decision making from the top leadership to everyone. A new product manager, in his/her first 90 days, could present/share a great piece of writing to stakeholders and immediately start building influence.
A lot has been written about ‘how to influence without authority’ but not a lot about the role of writing. Writing can immediately move the weight of the discussion from “lets go with one with the loudest opinion” to “lets all talk to the one who has consolidated all ideas into a single document”. It may not be easy to imagine this at first, but keep doing it repeatedly and you will start seeing the pattern.
🤔 But, what’s the big deal about Stripe’s writing culture?
After analysing Stripe’s writing culture across articles (1,2) and personal accounts of people, I summarised five unique ways in which Stripe creates a differentiation:
1. Leaders first 😎
Stripe’s writing culture literally starts at the top. The emails from CEO Patrick Collison are crisp and are followed by footnotes at the bottom so as to not distract the readers from the core message.
The point is not about how the CEO writes his emails. It is about clarity of thought. You could be writing any other form but the principles remain the same across Stripe: Concise, clear and transparent writing.
But you cannot just be writing something and circulating, there is a ‘review’ culture. Everytime you write something, you get it reviewed and record who reviewed so that when you circulate your document, the words have more impact and value.
2. Slide-decks are passe 😒
Sounds very Amazon like. Jeff Bezos (in 2004) banned all powerpoints and slide-decks, and emphasised (in his email below) why writing 4 page narratives are better:
Jeff Bezos even wrote about importance of writing in 2017 letter to shareholders. The narrative-style writing practice has been adapted at Stripe too. In-fact, writing narratives (4-6 page long documents) are the only way to share information or ideas at Stripe.
In 2018, when Stripe ended support for Bitcoin they made their memo public and is a good example of narrative style writing that is adopted inside.
If you’re looking at documentation structures adopted at Stripe for different kind of communications, this is a good read.
3. Document format, what? 🧐
All teams at stripe are free to utilise their own format in order to best present the information. Standardisation effort is not spent on formats, but on quality of writing. As long as you meet the standard of quality writing, the format doesn’t matter.
Having said that, for big initiatives and for documents that would be circulated across multiple stakeholders, there could be some level of standardisation of documents, but it is not a practice.
4. Visual element is key (+ Don’t look for the perfect version) 😏
This necessarily doesn’t mean you have to add graphs and fancy charts to your document. But your writing style could be visually appealing even if you have enough white spaces, clear bullet points, use the right font, use subheadings and keep your audience in mind.
Another way to get visual clarity in your document is to get it reviewed often and edit often. Just like you have MVP and more versions of your product, even the document can have its own life. You could start with version 1, circulate to your closest reviewers and then keep editing it till it becomes more widely circulate-able. Most well written documents are those that have went through multiple rounds of reviews and edits.
5. Writing is a culture, not a practice 🤩
In most companies, you write when needed or asked. At Stripe, a written document is like an internal product. It is perfected over time and soon some writings become timeless pieces. A lot of Stripe employees are frequent writers and even publish blog posts. In-fact, Stripe also publishes a magazine and its own books.
Screenshot from Stripe Press Website where all books written are available for sale
One positive effect of having it as a culture is that the employees move on from Stripe but continue to adopt the same writing culture at their next companies.
📶 How to create writing culture at your own organisation?😬
One of the reasons I started writing case studies was to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Now, as a product manager, you don’t have to disrupt the writing culture (or lack of) in your own organisation suddenly.
But you can start the flywheel and hope (if you stay long enough to see the change) that the flywheel becomes auto-functional some day. But how do you start a flywheel? It consists of four steps:
1. Be the one to write the first narrative document
You can get enough examples across the web about how to write great 4-6 page narratives. I have shared an example about Stripe memo above, and here is how employees do it at Amazon with detailed examples. Here are some more ideas to follow:
Once you write your first narrative, find a reviewer who can objectively go through your document and give improvements. (Email me if you need me to do that for you, happy to help). Iterate on your document until you feel its ready to be shared with wider audience/stakeholders.
2. Circulate it, Create Participation
If your document is about a product/project/feature/idea that impacts stakeholder outside your own team, then you could circulate your document amongst them and ask them to review/give comments by X date. This is a great way for others to participate in your writing process. You could either get harsh reviews (in which case you should take the feedback, or ask what could have been better) or you get good reviews. Anyways, both help you.
3. Reach out and replicate
If you have done enough networking with your first document while circulating, getting feedback and sharing it, it would be easy to reach out to your allies (i.e people who loved your form of writing) and offer to become their reviewer when they next write document. Or just let them know ‘would you try writing your next document in a similar narrative style as well?’ ‘I would love to review and help’.
Out of the 4 flywheel steps, I would say this one is the most critical. You have to encourage others, highlight others good writing and make it something more people want to do.
4. Make it easy for anyone to get started
The best way for any new phenomena to be mass adopted is by helping beginners by answering the question ‘how to get started?’. You have to decrease the friction of someone trying to write their first document. You can do this by:
1. Creating a Google Drive of good narrative documents written in your organisation
2. Great writing examples from Stripe/Amazon should be readily made available
3. Share some structures and formats to make it easier to get started
4. Write in slack/emails and appreciate well-written documents
As long as you start the flywheel and get some help along the way, you can see slow but sure change in the organisation’s writing. culture. Hope this week’s case study was helpful for your writing skills 😀.