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Seven Questions with James Buckhouse

Classic advice for founders from the Sequoia community.

As Design Partner at Sequoia, James Buckhouse helps founders design their approach to their customers, products, cultures, and businesses through a process Sequoia calls Company Design.

What’s something you’ve learned in navigating uncertainty?

Diagnose with data, treat with design, but understand through story. Data can help you figure out what is happening with your product—the nuances behind a peak or dip—and design can help you solve it. But neither can do their maximal work until you can understand the human truth behind the data. Why are people doing this, not that? What do they want out of life—and is this product helping them get it? And if you’ve got all of that figured out and the story still doesn’t add up, what’s the bug in your system that is distorting your signal?

What resource do you find yourself coming back to?

Story. It’s the skeleton key that can unlock any door. At the idea stage, your story is all you’ve got. You can use it to help people see the potential of your approach. Later, as you build and scale your product, story can help you make the right product choices. And much later on, when you’re preparing for life as a public company, story can help the rest of the world—investors, press, partners, and future customers—understand how your solution is a different, not merely better, way to solve an important problem.

What foundational step is most critical to building an enduring company?

In our Company Design Program for early stage founders, we talk about creating three foundational stories of transformation: for your customers, for your product, and for your culture. Of those, I think the customer story is most important, because everything else builds from there. Think of your customer as a character in a film. What’s their arc of transformation? How do they change over the course of the film? There is a reason many great founders—from Steve Jobs to Tony Hsieh—built their companies to be customer obsessed. Understanding your customers, both within and beyond the specific problem you are trying to solve, is the most direct way to build a product. Product-market fit starts with customer transformation.

Which company-building feat do you hail as the hardest?

Showing how your product is different, not merely better. People will only champion your product if they believe it’s going to make a difference in their life. Your solution can’t merely solve their problem, it must also transform the customer—change how they do their job, change their fortunes or those of their company, and help them take one step closer to becoming the person they want to be.

We never talk about the personal transformation, but it’s the one that matters most. People buy software when they see it directly tied to what they secretly want in life, even if they would never admit it: to finally get that big promotion or more time at home with their loved ones; to be seen as a strategic contributor or outshine a competitive sibling or prove a high-school guidance counselor wrong; to simply never miss another child’s birthday party. We’d never admit any of these desires to a sales rep, but they’re strong, motivating forces. Your product story must transform the customer at all three levels—fix their job, save their company, change their life—for them to become advocates for your product.

What do you do differently than most?

Lots of designers storyboard the flow or screens of an app, the actual UX or UI. Almost no one storyboards the life and emotional state of the customer at each moment along the way. I’ve found it helpful to illustrate the emotions, not just the UI—to see their faces and the places where people are using the app—their personal journey alongside the product screens.

It’s similar to something I used to do at DreamWorks, working on the Shrek and Madagascar movies. We would review scenes at the end of each day and look for opportunities to “punch up” jokes or heighten the emotional impact of each scene, and I eventually realized the ones that worked best demonstrated the largest shift in emotional state. Because if Shrek walks into a scene in one mood and leaves in the same mood, then what really happened?

When I started working as an experience architect at Twitter, I adapted that process: Just as every scene must “turn,” so should every feature. I would start a project by visualizing the emotional transformation of the customer, then translated that to what should appear in the app.

How do you proceed when there’s no right answer?

I go back to the customer. Sometimes when I’m stuck on a product decision, I’ll step backward until I get to a point where I feel confident—where things are working and I know I’m doing what’s right for the customer. From there, it’s developing a hypothesis based on the customer, product and culture stories and having the courage to test, iterate and move forward. Often this means going back and interviewing customers—both happy and unhappy—and listening, watching and learning from what they say (and what they don’t).

What future opportunities will be born from recent events?

The world is getting ready for a new surge of innovation to help solve the complex, interrelated problems our planet is facing. That’s part of what we’re trying to do in the Sequoia Design Lab—to research and recreate the conditions that facilitated similar innovative periods in the past. Every previous surge of innovation, from the Mouseion and the Library of Alexandria, to the Song Dynasty, to the Italian Renaissance, has had three things in common: One, a signal went out to brilliant people, telling them their work would be valued and supported. Two, those people got to work shoulder to shoulder, so their ideas could blend across fields. And three, there was a new way to physically write it all down, from the papyrus scrolls to the Gutenberg press.

Today, we have some of that with GitHub. Instead of writing your code from scratch every time, you can build off someone else’s work to move your own project forward. We hope our Company Design Program will be a bit like the GitHub for all the other parts of building a company—a place where brilliant people can build off each other’s foundational efforts and draw from each other intellectually and emotionally, as well as practically and tactically. Founders helping founders is the fastest and best way to move each other’s ideas and ultimately every industry forward.