Blog How a Scrappy Mindset Can Improve & Accelerate Your Product

Scrappiness is a mindset, an element of strategic thinking, and an execution model in and of itself. Here’s how to harness it in order to improve your product.

It seems like everyone’s talking about scrappiness these days.

From the wise words of Lin Manuel Miranda, “Hey yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry and I’m not throwin’ away my shot”

We see it everywhere — especially at startups like us.

Startups don’t have the luxury of name recognition. They don’t have buyer or supplier power, and frankly, they don’t have endless amounts of money.  Every penny needs to be converted. 

Part of the scrappy mindset is, “Hey, let’s use resources where it’s going to matter and where it’s going to change the trajectory of the company.” It’s built on the idea that every employee’s time is valuable and should be maximized.

At the highest level, we often think of someone who’s scrappy as fighting against the odds and has managed to come out victorious against an insurmountable obstacle. And not by luck. Scrappy people face challenges head on. They find unexpected paths to extraordinary outcomes. They move forward even in the face of adversity using ingenuity. 

Sometimes it’s hard to define intuitively but we know it when we see it. 

We see it in people like Danielle Lei, a 13-year old girl scout who skipped selling cookies door-to-door. Instead, she set up a table outside of a medical marijuana dispensary.

She sold 117 boxes in a single day.

So, how does one define scrappiness? Should we apply scrappiness to everything? Can anyone be scrappy or is it just an innate quality? How can companies unlock this mindset in their people?

To better understand the concept, we spoke with Dan Platt, Senior Principal of Market Innovation and RJ Santana, Principal Engineer — 2 individuals that truly embody the scrappiness spirit here at Narrative Science. Here’s what they had to say.

How do you define scrappiness and why does it even matter? What are the benefits of scrappiness?

RJ Santana:

“I think scrappiness is a combination of a lot of different properties. 

You definitely need to have initiative and listen to what’s going on, but you also need to have passion and an interest in the product. If you’re not interested in what problem the product is solving and you’re just waiting for somebody to tell you what to build, you’re never really going to grow that scrappiness in you. It involves an investment. You need to be emotionally invested to warrant pausing planned work to solve something that is bugging you and bugging a lot of people.

You also need to have patience. Sometimes you may have an idea to improve the system in a positive way but it’s just not the right time. Not just because of how the roadmap is prioritized but because the system might not be in the best place from an engineering perspective.

I have had many situations where I tell myself ‘If there were one or two features that existed in this system we could unlock this whole broader feature relatively quickly’. However, it might not be the right time to do both of those features.. Instead, look at the roadmap and ask yourself “Is there anywhere that I can slot in those features while working on roadmap items”. Once you slowly chip away at each smaller feature it becomes easier to pause on whatever you are doing and finish the last mile of work.”

Can you give an example of how you or others have exhibited scrappiness during your tenure?

Dan Platt:

“One example that comes to mind is how we came up with one of our products, Quill. It’s an amazing product today but it didn’t start out that way.

It actually started with a photo of a dashboard that I mocked up and sent to Stuart Frankel, our CEO. I said ‘wouldn’t it be something if we could just take what we do and put it into these tools’. His response was ‘This is on the right track, let’s sync up at some point in the near future.’ Which to me, meant ‘Come back when you have something better.’ That put me on a quest to try to make this actually a real thing. 

Early stage Quill (left) and Quill today (right)

I’m not an engineer and my skills are not infinite so I had to try to figure out how to build this. I talked to a lot of people about geospatial tools and maps and someone showed me this product called Esri. I was snooping around on that product and I came across an example where you would click on some part of a map and they would write what the population was in a box. That gave me an idea, so I looked at the code and I saw something that I could actually do. I needed to get a story into this box and I need to show how the story changes as you move. This became the seed for what would become Quill.

And I didn’t get permission to do this. It was in my spare time, which I’m not advocating for people to work all the time. I just had a genuine curiosity about what we do as a company. For me, It’s not a big deal to mess around with ideas like this while I’m sitting in a gate area of an airport. All the things I know about software development and engineering I learned from trying to solve problems that matter to me and to Narrative Science. I don’t think I would know half the things I know if I just did tutorials with fake examples. That’s how I learn and get excited about the work I do.”

Are scrappiness and process always in conflict? How do we bridge those two things? When should we not be “scrappy”?

RJ Santana:

“There’s a balance. On one side you have full scrappy like fresh startups where their mentality is “Go build, we can worry about the repercussions later”. However, even in those situations, there are always things that you need to be aware of. There’s always some level of responsibility and due diligence that you need to do. You can’t just ignore things like GDPR or basic security requirements to prevent data breaches.

When you’re talking about highly sensitive things it’s more about knowing the requirements and figuring out how you can make the rest of the work and process as scrappy as possible.

You need to know your risks. You need to know the impact of your changes. You also need to have an understanding of the priorities of your product and your company.”

What has to be in place for a company to unlock scrappiness?

Dan Platt:

“There needs to be an awareness that all problems that move the company forward are worthwhile problems to solve. Just because something may not be a user facing feature does not necessarily mean that it is not a problem worth solving.”

RJ Santana: 

“Running hackathons and creating space where our engineers can carve out a certain amount of time to just tackle a problem that they think is interesting.

Outside of that, it’s really about having clear goals and ideas about the long term vision of the product. Goal setting is important. When we talk about our 5 year goal for the product, that gives employees something tangible to align with. It gets people excited for the future. 

As you slowly move towards those goals, you might unlock a new path that you didn’t think of on the way and celebrating that is really important.”

Can anyone be scrappy or is it just an innate quality? 

RJ Santana:

“Anyone can learn to be scrappy. It’s definitely easier for some people than it is for others. For me, personally, I think a lot of it has to do with alignment between you and the company. It’s very easy to feel driven and to be scrappy when you are passionate about what the company’s doing and you’re aligned with the leadership.

You also need to feel comfortable in the code base and working on the product. At Narrative Science, our engineers carve out their own little spaces that they really enjoy. When people feel a level of ownership over a part of the product they become very passionate about it. Sometimes to an extreme extent but I would take passion and protectiveness of the product over disinterest.

When you enable engineers to feel that way, you get a lot more scrappiness overall out of the team. While the company can help fuel the passion, it is up to each person to cultivate it within themselves. 

All of this won’t work however without clear communication across the organization. When you’re comfortable having candid conversations with people about your ideas and can process critical feedback while still pushing your idea forward, that is when you’ll really start to grow and you’ll be able to exploit your scrappiness.”

What are the first 3 things someone should do if they want to be more “scrappy”? 

Dan Platt:

“Find a problem that you perceive exists and build something to solve it. It doesn’t need to be the prettiest or the most production grade, but you need to show some version of a solution. You have to start somewhere so find something that you think you can impact. Then be open to selling it to someone. You need to be able to articulate how it will actually make people’s lives or the company better.”

Scrappiness is a mindset, an element of strategic thinking, and an execution model in and of itself. 

And the truth is, everyone has the potential to harness it. One just has to:

  1. Have an understanding of the product strategy, purpose, and vision — and use that as permission.
  2. Allow their passion for the product/problem to overrule the fear of doing something wrong.
  3. Harness imagination, curiosity, strategic thinking, and persistence to bring ideas to fruition. 

At Narrative Science, we admire this trait and actively look for it in new hires. Do you embody scrappiness? We would love for you to join our team! Check out our open roles on our career page below.

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