Startups: How to Use Amazon’s Narrative Process to Set Goals and Think Clearly
Guest post by Richard Howard, AWS Startup Business Development
If you’ve ever read anything about the internal processes of Amazon, you may know that Amazon eschews PowerPoint presentations in favor of written documents. There are a couple of different documents that Amazonians write, and they’re used for different things. In this post, I’m going to discuss the concept of the “Narrative” and how it can help startups think more clearly, set goals, and keep themselves accountable.
What is a Narrative?
First off, a narrative is a document that everyone at Amazon uses to set out team, organization, or individual planning, typically for the year ahead. It is limited to a maximum of six pages (but can have a reasonable number of appendices), and you can’t cheat that page count with non-existent margins or tiny fonts.
Starting your Narrative
A narrative should be written so that anybody within your organization can read and understand it without any prior knowledge of the proposal. Within the context of your startup, that means that a narrative written by your head of sales should be comprehensible to product managers, engineers, and marketers. As such, it’s important to start any narrative with its ‘Purpose’ and some ‘Background.’
In the ‘Purpose’ section, you should tell the reader why you’re writing the document, what information you expect to present, and which topics you will—and will not—touch upon.
‘Background’ is crucial to give the reader context of what you as an individual or business area owner are trying to achieve. Tell them why it’s important. Everything in your narrative should be based on facts rather than speculation. Don’t use words like ‘should.’ Instead, back everything up with research, including internal and external data.
Below is a fictional example from an e-scooter company of a narrative written by the head of marketing. In reality, you’d want it to be more detailed, but this should give you some ideas for getting started:
The purpose of this document is to set out the 2020 strategies for customer acquisition in Funky Scooters EMEA markets. This document will be used to inform global leadership.
Funky Scooters operates in 10 cities within 4 EMEA markets (UK, France, Germany and Ireland). According to Important Independent Research Co, the e-Scooter market for these 4 countries is worth £100million and is expected to grow 100% year over year. Currently, Funky Scooters is in 3rd place in all of the markets behind Better Scooters and Best Scooters. We have 19% market share and our current customer acquisitions costs are £10…You get the idea.
What You’re Going to Do and How
Once you’ve provided the purpose and context, it’s time to get to the real meat of the document: what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. This is a combination of goals/initiatives and how you’re going to achieve and track them.
Going back to our fictional scooter company, below is an abbreviated initiative example:
Initiative 1 – Acquiring more female customers 18 – 29
Funky Scooters overall market share is 19%, however, amongst women aged 18 – 29 it is 10%. According to Important Independent Research Co, women aged 18-29 made up 44% of e-scooter rides in EMEA in 2018 as they are more environmentally conscious and more likely to use scooters than their male counterparts. Increasing our usage amongst this customer cohort is incredibly important to Funky Scooters continued growth. In order to drive growth, we will be using health and fitness influencer marketing campaign. Specific influencer details can be found in Appendix A. This campaign will cost £100,000 and is expected to provide a revenue uplift of £500,000 increasing our market share to 23%.
Be realistic and don’t set 50 goals that will be impossible to achieve. Instead, set a small number of goals and lay out the step-by-step plans to achieve them. Let the reader know what the expected outcome is as well as how you arrived at that outcome.
You’ve laid out everything you’re going to achieve and how you’re going to do it. Now it’s time to lay out some of the risks and dependencies. Who or what teams are you going to be relying on to help you execute and achieve your goals. Also, what are the risks to you not achieving your goals – these can be internal risks, market risks, or even macro risks, like global political instability.
What to Do Once Your Narrative is Finished
At Amazon, when we discuss narratives, we print out the documents and invite a lot of stakeholders into the room to start the discussion. We spend the first 15 minutes of the meeting just reading the document and making notes. Once those 15 minutes are up, we’ll go around the room making comments, asking questions, or asking for clarification. These meetings help bring the initiatives and strategies into focus, sharpen the document, and can make the writer think differently about certain problems. Once the meeting is done, it’s time to either iterate on the document and improve it based on feedback or go and execute.
Narrative writing is something I’ve even taken into my personal life to try and achieve my personal goals. Writing things down clearly can really help sharpen your thinking. You can also refer back to the document throughout the year to make sure that you’re doing what you said you’d do. Some initiatives may not work out but having a clear insight into your thinking at the time can help you critically assess what you did, what you were trying to achieve and why it didn’t work. Writing narratives would definitely have helped at all of the startups I worked at and I’m sure it’ll work for yours, too.