A few weeks ago I was talking to Nicolas Warren, founder and CEO of Perfect Fuel Chocolate, whom I first met earlier this year. Like any startup trying to introduce a novel and differentiated consumer product, Perfect Fuel has learned its lessons and earned its victories. (Perfect Fuel's flagship product is an organic, gluten-free chocolate-plus-ginseng energy snack.)
When I caught up with Warren, he told me he was planning a small celebration--a pizza party--for the four-person Perfect Fuel team.
"We had an awesome trade show," Warren explained. "We didn't reach our hard-and-fast dollar-amount goals, but that's OK. All our neighbors were jealous of our attention. Our team was on point." (The trade show was Expo East in Baltimore, which took place September 17-20.)
Warren's decision to celebrate a trade show in which his team didn't meet its on-paper goals but still acquitted itself marvelously is consistent with the advice entrepreneur Frank Gruber provides in Startup Mixology, his recent book about turning ideas into action. In fact, Gruber, the co-founder of media company Tech Cocktail, devotes an entire chapter to the subject of proper celebration. One of his main points is that founders should use celebration as a "tool that can leverage big and small wins and keep you and your team focused and motivated during the not-so-good times."
Here are seven more reasons it pays to celebrate:
1. Celebrations provide positive reinforcement. Just because you fall short of a goal doesn't mean your employees didn't work hard--and accomplish other feats in the process.
For example, while Perfect Fuel did not hit its "signature-on-invoice" sales target (they reached 84 percent of it), the team still kicked butt at Expo East, landing two new distributors and creating a buzz with its booth. Moreover, Warren estimates he collected "five-to-six inches' worth" of business cards at the show, not to mention hundreds of scanned attendee ID badges. Of such items hard and digital, qualified sales leads are born.
Then there's this: Like many trade show employees, Perfect Fuel's team stood on their feet for three straight days. It was a high-stress, high-energy time. But the team stuck together and did not point fingers or snap at each other. "That, in and of itself, is a big win," Warren said.
2. Celebrations allow leaders to emphasize work-life balance. Gruber explained this to me in an email. "Let's say your team finally figured out a bug in their code after being stuck for days without making headway," he wrote. "This might be a good time to take a break, let your team get back to their families for a moment, or take them out to lunch or dinner."
Remember, your team is looking to you--the leader--for tacit cues (if not overt permission) that it's OK to take breaks from crucial projects. There's a reason some of the smartest companies around strictly enforce employee vacations, even paying workers to walk away for a while. Many employees--especially those at startups--still live to work and work to live. They won't take breaks of their own accord. You'll have to lead the way.
3. Celebrations lighten the arduous entrepreneurial journey. Not that enforcing the norms of work-life balance comes easy for entrepreneurs. Company founders, too, often struggle taking breaks of their own accord. "This is probably one of the most difficult parts of using celebration as a tool," admits Gruber. "Entrepreneurs tend to hustle hard and go until they drop. So the argument continues to be that this is a journey--a hard one--and the only way to make it sustainable and bearable is if you actually acknowledge your small successes along the way."
Gruber adds that there are plenty of entrepreneurs who can tell tales of burnout, depression, or simply quitting out of sadness and frustration. If their stories don't motivate you to at least occasionally celebrate, nothing will.
4. Celebrations reveal your company as a fun place to work at--or volunteer for. A fun-times culture helped Perfect Fuel prepare for the trade show. Specifically, Warren and director of operations Miles Masci organized a packing party in advance of the show, so they could ship 1,000 pounds of product to Baltimore.
All told, there were 11 people at the party, including grad students from Babson and Harvard Business School. Did those students want a taste of the startup life? Sure. Did they also want to have a good time? Absolutely. In the same way helping your friends move to new apartments is more fun when it's followed by pizza and beer, so it is with packing product. "There's teamwork, camaraderie, and a shared experience," says Warren. "Afterward, you clink your glasses and remember it."
5. Celebrations connect your company's story to the outside world. "No one cares about your story more than you do," writes Gruber in Startup Mixology. "So you have to be willing to scream it from the top of a mountain."
More than this, a formal celebration--say, for a company anniversary or milestone--can help you move away from the art of storytelling (a term that is all the rage these days) and into the art of storymaking. Storytelling, as most brands use it, is a one-way street, in which the brand monologues its tale to potential customers. By contrast, storymaking is inclusive and collaborative, according to David Berkowitz, CMO of Manhattan branding consultancy MRY.
In the process of storymaking, all you're doing is gathering tales from shareholders about how your brand has become a part of their true-life experiences. A party is the perfect setting to accomplish this. For example, you can set up photography stations, like HubSpot did through The Danger Booth at its Inbound 2014 conference last month in Boston. At the Danger Booth station, attendees were able to take fun photos at the conference. The stations allowed HubSpot to gather visual mementos of how its brand has shaped its shareholders' experiences.
6. Celebrations reward office spontaneity. Generally speaking, entrepreneurs aren't much for advance planning. Rather, planning and action go together. That's great for seat-of-the-pants opportunity-seizing, but not necessarily ideal for organizing group celebrations.
The good news? "Not all celebrations need to be super planned-out," notes Gruber. "Order cupcakes, get a drink, play a videogame, or a game of foosball." These simple celebrations, he adds, can sometimes be the best ones. "You can also ask your team what they want to do and have them help. Ideally your celebrations are born from your team," Gruber said.
7. Celebrations defuse needless confrontations. Sure, there are times when team members need to confront each other. But a trade show is not one of them. Like a family arguing in public, it presents an uncomfortable scene.
An attitude of celebration can prevent heated moments from flaring into something larger. Warren felt this himself during a short stretch at Expo East. Upon returning from a 30-minute break, he found the Perfect Fuel display to be not as neat as it was when he'd left it. "I was a little frustrated," he recalls. "My thought was, 'Why did you let this happen? I was gone for 30 minutes. How long has this looked so crappy?'"
But he kept his frustration in check, mindful of all that Perfect Fuel had accomplished--and planned to celebrate.
After all, part of what it was celebrating was the actual completion of the show: 1,000 pounds of goods, packed and shipped, followed by three days of standing, selling, and making connections.
"We worked so hard and so diligently," he said. "Damn right we were going to have a pizza party."