A framework and template for overcoming high-stakes challenges when everything is on the line
Most great teams would agree, there’s nothing more powerful for executing on big ambitions than a clearly defined and well-communicated goal. But sometimes the stakes are much higher than usual. In these instances, a goal requires even more focus, execution, and clarity. All of these can be achieved through a framework that I have come to call SuperGoals, which I’ve relied on heavily throughout my career.
Below, I’ll share my framework for SuperGoals, along with real life examples of how I’ve used them. But before I dive in, let me share some context to set the stage.
SuperGoals helped us revolutionize podcasting.
In 2015, while working at Adobe, my friend Nir Zicherman and I found we had a lot in common, and bonded over music, writing (you can read his work here), and most importantly… podcasts. After a decade of relative obscurity, podcasts were finally gaining mainstream appeal, attracting millions of people, including us. Nir and I both believed the medium would continue to gain momentum and were so enthusiastic that we decided to try to make our own podcasts. However, we were quickly demoralized by the high barrier of entry to the space, navigating complicated software, expensive hardware, and cumbersome file hosting and distribution systems.
Inspired by the personal challenges we faced with podcasting, we decided to start a company called Anchor to solve these problems, with a mission to democratize audio. Over the next several years, we would go on to create a category-defining product, build a world-class team, and ultimately sell Anchor to Spotify. After the acquisition, I operated at Spotify for several years, most recently leading the podcast, video, and live audio businesses, while helping grow Anchor into the world’s largest podcasting platform. While the story of Anchor had plenty of peaks and a very happy ending, it also had its fair share of valleys and near-death experiences. I believe that one of the keys to solving many of Anchor’s most difficult challenges was SuperGoals.
What exactly is a SuperGoal?
A SuperGoal is a high stakes, focusing goal for a team. It has a clear and urgent timeframe, an open-ended method of achievement, and a single measure of success that everyone can understand. While I’ve used a wide variety of goal types, such as OKRs, BHAGs, and stacked priorities, I have found SuperGoals to be my go-to framework in the most critical of moments.
Few goal-setting frameworks deliver the singularity of SuperGoals — you only get one, it’s not aspirational, and it must be accomplished.
When using SuperGoals, nothing else matters: they temporarily transcend all other goals by instilling a sense of urgency that reinforces clarity and inspires creativity.
When I use SuperGoals, they must meet three specific criteria:
- Clear and urgent timeframe: Many single-goal systems focus on “audaciousness” (e.g. “BHAGs”) in a way that acknowledges that a goal will probably never be hit. But my approach is the opposite — SuperGoals must be hit, and they require a concrete date by which it must be achieved. In this way, SuperGoals can drive urgency within a team. I highly recommend using SuperGoals in situations where there’s existential risk (i.e. if we don’t achieve X% growth by Y date, then we’ll run out of money and our startup is dead.)
- Open-ended method of achievement: While SuperGoals should be as precise as possible on the goal and the date, they should be the opposite in terms of the delivery model. They aim to encourage an “all hands on deck” approach, drawing ideas from all corners of an organization. In this way, SuperGoals can drive creativity amongst a team — allowing unexpected ideas to emerge from anywhere.
- Single measure of success that everyone can understand: “There can be only one.” If you follow the SuperGoal framework, you simply cannot have multiple goals at the same time. Also, everyone on your team must be able to understand it — it’s intended to drive clarity for the team.
As I reflect back on my work on Anchor and Spotify, three stories of SuperGoals come to mind, each of which align with a specific phase of my overall journey. Each resulted in both amazing outcomes for our team and a distinct lesson about the value of SuperGoals: driving urgency, unleashing creativity, and providing clarity.
Lesson 1: SuperGoals drive urgency.
In the spring of 2017, about a year after Anchor launched to a wave of excitement (but before we found product-market fit), we found ourselves in a dangerous situation: unless we were able to raise our Series A round of funding during the following fall months, we would probably run out of money and the company would be over. Back then, there was a rigid seasonality to fundraising; the summer months were effectively dead, as was December and much of January. That gave us September, October, and November to get a deal done.
Sharp, aggressive goals are motivating.
There was just one big problem: since we hadn’t yet found product-market fit, our growth metrics were completely flat and unimpressive. We had exactly three months to turn the company around or it was over. Grow or die.
Nir and I locked ourselves in a conference room for a few days and raced to devise a plan. The main idea was to set an aggressive monthly active user number, roughly 4x our current amount, that we had to achieve by August. On the surface, this sounded good, but there were a few issues.
- First, setting an MAU goal for a three month period meant that we were effectively giving ourselves only three data points to showcase dramatic growth. If we had even one bad month, the growth would look weak to investors.
- Second, setting an absolute number as a goal meant it’d be hard to track our progress on a regular basis and gauge how we were progressing.
As a solution to the former, we adjusted to weekly active users (WAU), giving us roughly 9 data points to prove growth instead of 3. And for the latter, we drew inspiration from one of my favorite Paul Graham essays, Startup = Growth. In the piece, Graham notes that the most exceptional YC companies grow their revenue by 10% per week. While this growth rate seemed extreme, especially since we hadn’t yet found product market fit, we noticed that it would get us almost exactly to 4x our current scale when we worked it into our model. And with that, we set a company-wide SuperGoal of 10% week over week growth of WAU to ensure we didn’t run out of cash.
SuperGoal 1: Achieve 10% week-over-week growth of WAU for the next three months to ensure we don’t run out of cash.
High stakes spark ambition.
As a company, we met every day to track our progress and brainstorm new tactics. No idea was off the table, and everyone was expected to both contribute ideas and help execute on them, regardless of role or level. We also set a rule for ourselves: missing a week meant making up the missed growth in the following week, not resetting the baseline. This set the stakes even higher, because missing a week meant we’d pay for it later. During this period, some of our earliest growth drivers came from pure marketing tactics. For example, we got really good at promoting content from the platform and creating Twitter Moments that went viral, which helped grow our brand and drive user acquisition. However, we found that nothing was more impactful at moving the WAU growth needle than shipping and marketing new features.
Since SuperGoals have an open-ended delivery mechanism, the ideas for hitting them can come from anywhere. Given that, more than ever before, we were willing to solicit requests from our users, including ones that had previously violated some of our prior product principles. For example, one of our core beliefs was that our audio format was unique to Anchor and therefore could not exist on other platforms, such as Apple Podcasts and Spotify. However, we noticed an uptick of requests to enable Anchor-created content for off-platform distribution. This sparked a debate: should we go for it and change how Anchor operated?
In the early days, it wasn’t yet a podcasting platform; it was a social audio app that made it easy to create and share audio content. This part of our strategy meant that both creation and consumption could only take place within the Anchor app. If we chose to act on this request, we’d be breaking our strategy. With the stakes as high as they were, we swallowed our pride, pulled the request off the idea stack, and got to work.
Within a matter of weeks, the team built, shipped, and marketed an RSS delivery engine that enabled us to distribute audio to all major podcasting platforms with the tap of a button. And almost immediately, the feature changed the trajectory of Anchor. With this launch — which was only possible through lightning fast iteration and a sense of existential urgency that pushed us to question our original beliefs — we found product-market fit and hit our SuperGoal of 10% week-over-week WAU growth for three months straight. And we were able to raise a $10M Series A that September on the strength of our growth during that three month period. As I’ve reflected on this story in the years since, it’s become crystal clear to me how SuperGoals create urgency.
Lesson 2: SuperGoals unleash creativity and deliver unexpected results.
From that moment on, Anchor began growing like crazy, and quickly became one of the biggest hosting platforms. Best of all, as more people joined Anchor to create podcasts, we were helping to expand the size of the ecosystem, true to our mission. But a year later, a new challenge was upon us.
Through our research, we determined that only 1% of all podcasters in the world were able to monetize their podcast. This meant that the other 99% had no viable path to making any money and their podcasts would always remain a side hustle. For a company determined to empower creators of all sizes, we felt it was our responsibility to change this. We wanted to make podcasting more than just accessible; we wanted to make it equitable, too. To get to the next level of growth for Anchor, we had to break this pattern — we needed to make it possible for creators to make a real living off their podcasts.
Through Anchor’s large scale, we believed we could do something that had never been done before in podcasting: offer the world’s first scaled podcast ad marketplace. We envisioned brands could advertise across thousands of shows with a single click, just like they did with websites and search results through Google AdSense. We raced furiously over the course of many months to build and launch the product, with a hard deadline of launching what we would call “Anchor Sponsorships” by the end of calendar year 2018 so we could begin pursuing a Series B round of funding in early 2019.
Imagination is unlocked by constraints.
There was just one problem: while we raced to build the actual product, we were extremely demand-constrained, struggling to find brands willing to spend money on the platform before it launched. Given so few podcasters had ever been able to make money in podcasting before, we wanted to offer creators something groundbreaking — the ability to sign up for Anchor and start making money immediately. As a creator-first company determined to democratize podcasting, it would violate the entire value proposition if we didn’t have enough brand dollars to go around to creators the moment they signed up. After all, how could we offer an ad marketplace without having both supply and demand? It was a classic chicken-and-egg problem, but with a hard deadline of the product’s launch staring us in the face. It was time for a SuperGoal.
Once again, we set our bar high. After much deliberation, we decided creators wouldn’t be satisfied — and neither would we — unless every single creator who signed up got matched with at least one brand campaign at launch. So we made that our SuperGoal. By launch date of the product, we had to have enough demand on the platform to ensure every single podcaster could get sponsored.
SuperGoal 2: Ensure every single podcaster has a sponsor for their podcast by Anchor Sponsorships launch day.
The best ideas can come from anywhere.
We met daily to brainstorm and prioritize our goal’s work. Our first idea was to hire salespeople, which we began doing immediately. The few we hired — plus other team members (such as my co-founder and me) — got to work calling brands and pitching them on the concept. While we had success landing a few, we quickly realized that this slow, manual process would never help us reach our SuperGoal.
We moved on to agencies. Rather than spin up new brand relationships, we aimed to work with others who already had a stable of brands ready to spend money. While this sounded good in theory, in practice we found that the buying cycles were slow and seasonal. Plus, brands that worked with agencies insisted on buying proven formats only. With the launch only a few weeks away and the deadline for our SuperGoal fast approaching, we needed to try something crazy.
Then, one of Anchor’s engineers had a brilliantly creative idea: what if Anchor, the brand, became creators’ first sponsor? Initially, this idea sounded impossible. We were a tiny startup and didn’t have much of the $10M left in the bank. However, as we allowed ourselves to consider it and modeled the potential cost, we realized it had a shot at working. Since podcast ads traditionally paid on a CPM basis (cost per thousand impressions) and the world’s podcast catalog was mostly made up of smaller shows, funding most creators would be inexpensive. And for the shows that ultimately did break through and generate massive audiences, we felt confident we’d be able to help those creators sell their inventory to one of the agencies or brands we had partnered with and take a market-standard fee to cover our costs of the Anchor ads.
It worked. Sponsorships launched in November of 2018, with Anchor serving as the first sponsor for every creator who signed up for the service, followed by other sponsors like Squarespace, SeatGeek, Cash App, and others as creators’ shows grew. Within weeks, we had doubled the number of podcasters who had ever made money from their work. Not only that, but we quickly found that by having Anchor sponsor all creators’ shows, we actually grew our user base in a highly efficient way through word of mouth impact. Ensuring every creator had a sponsor bred profound creativity from all corners of our team and gave us a surprising new marketing channel. In this case, I found that SuperGoals unleash creativity and deliver unexpected results.
Lesson 3: SuperGoals provide clarity.
Shortly after this launch, based on the growing strength of our product and creator base, Spotify announced that it was acquiring Anchor in the winter of 2019. It was a dream come true for us to be continuing our work at Spotify, and the start of a new chapter for our team.
If you were following the podcast industry at the time, you may remember that the same day Spotify acquired Anchor, they also acquired another podcasting company, Gimlet Media. This was a meaningful moment for both the previously small podcast industry, as well as Spotify, the world’s leading music streaming service at the time. With this pair of acquisitions, Spotify was stating, for itself and the world, that it was no longer just about music: it was about the whole of audio.
While Gimlet and Anchor were both podcasting companies, the similarities ended there:
- Gimlet, and other companies like Parcast and The Ringer (both of which Spotify would later acquire), were a bet that podcasting would be a hits-driven business, one in which the world’s most popular shows drove the vast majority of the value. It was easy to see why; companies like Netflix had built massive businesses worth hundreds of billions of dollars based on a similar premise, but for video instead of audio. By acquiring Gimlet, Spotify was placing one bet that audio will follow the same trend as subscription video platforms like Netflix.
- Anchor, on the other hand, took a completely different strategic approach. We believed podcasting would eventually become a massive, creator-driven ecosystem, akin to open content platforms like YouTube or Instagram. We thought that by democratizing audio, we could both give everyone in the world a voice while also building an incredibly valuable audio business. By acquiring Anchor, Spotify was placing a simultaneous, yet complimentary bet that podcasting would be more like YouTube… but for audio. While each acquisition took a different approach to podcasts, Spotify had to find a way to measure all podcasts (and thus each acquisition) equally.
But how would they do it?
Nearly all mature internet businesses measure the value of their users through a metric called Lifetime Value (LTV). This helps companies determine which users are more valuable than others to help them figure out the most efficient marketing channels, the stickiest product features, and so on. But Spotify had an idea to take LTV even further. Using traditional LTV, as well as concepts like marginal churn contribution, Spotify was actually able to transform their LTV metric and apply it to not only users, but also podcasts. This meant that the value of every podcast on the platform — regardless of size — could be measured in the same way, apples to apples (you can see how Spotify talks about it here).
Through this powerful LTV metric, it was easy to see how massive, hit podcasts with millions of listeners (like ones Gimlet was producing) could be really valuable to Spotify. However, the idea that smaller podcasts could also drive meaningful LTV was still very much unproven.
Deep insights can drive breakthrough discoveries.
As we settled into Spotify, searched for our new identity, and wondered how we might contribute meaningfully to LTV, Anchor kept growing. More and more people were making podcasts. However, we felt we still needed to show the rest of the company, and the podcasting ecosystem more broadly, that smaller creators mattered. This felt existential; between speaking to many founders of other acquired companies and having gone through another acquisition myself (prior to Anchor, I was VP of Product for Aviary, which was acquired by Adobe), we knew that within big companies, acquired teams needed to prove their strategy’s value or risk being defunded.
Our Insights Lead had become intensely focused on Spotify’s LTV metric. After digging through Anchor data for months, he came to me with a discovery: there was in fact meaningful LTV being generated from smaller podcasts. He determined that this was because smaller podcasts, by definition, had niche audiences that were unlikely to overlap with other shows, resulting in more value on a per listener basis than larger shows. When looking at larger shows, they often drove much larger audiences. But those audiences tended to overlap quite a bit, so the marginal LTV of some of those shows was less than expected. But for the smaller shows, it was the opposite. This felt like a groundbreaking discovery. Smaller shows were punching way above their weight class.
In isolation, the value from a single smaller show wasn’t enough to deserve major attention within the company. However, based on this insight and how quickly this segment of the catalog was growing, we believed that the aggregate value of these shows could be extremely meaningful, potentially matching (or even exceeding) the value of the catalog’s head shows. Given the new discovery and the pressure we were already feeling, it was time for a SuperGoal.
Simplicity is powerful.
Once we saw this observation, we had a lot of debate on the relevant SuperGoal. Driving LTV can be a bit abstract for specific areas of a business, and as stated above, a SuperGoal needs to ensure an “all hands on deck” approach. LTV as a SuperGoal wasn’t going to work.
We then considered total catalog size, which we eventually determined could be misguided and incentivize us to prioritize features that only brought in new users. Instead, we needed a goal that pushed us to provide real value to creators – value that kept them coming back – not just enabled them to record one episode and quit.
Ultimately, we decided to make this goal simpler and relatable to everyone on the team by focusing on driving Monthly Active Creators (MAC). This covered new and existing creators to deliver long-term value for all creators — not just the new ones. I’ve chosen to omit the exact SuperGoal metric and date (as the team’s strategy is still in progress); however, I can assure you it was very ambitious and time-boxed.
SuperGoal 3: Prove Spotify LTV and the value of millions of podcasts by reaching X MAC by Y date.
What followed was one of the most collaborative, productive, and unifying periods of my Anchor/Spotify journey. We were able to ship cross-functional, groundbreaking features like Music+Talk, Podcast Subscriptions, and Video Podcasts. Not only did this SuperGoal roll directly into Spotify’s mission to enable a million creators to live off their art, it motivated our team to break free from our Anchor bubble to work with other teams at Spotify. In that period, we proved that millions of creators making podcasts on Anchor did drive LTV in a big way.
It also taught me another lesson: SuperGoals provide clarity. The broad impact we could have on the future of audio was now clear. And for Spotify, it clarified the value of all podcasts within the company’s broader strategy: Podcasting was no longer simply about the world’s most popular shows, it was about the many millions of creators, regardless of size, who chose to share their stories with the world.
Create your own SuperGoals to unlock new levels of success for your team.
SuperGoals unlock exceptional outcomes for teams when the stakes are highest. They supersede everything else by uniting colleagues with a shared sense of urgency while unleashing creativity and reinforcing clarity needed to bring them closer to the desired goal.
If you and your team are ready to make your own, here are three templates to get you started:
- Choose your SuperGoal: Brainstorm potential SuperGoals as a team, select just one, and gauge everyone’s commitment to the SuperGoal.
- Ideas for your SuperGoal: Gather and nurture ideas from across the organization.
- Achieve your SuperGoal: Meet daily to check in on progress and discuss new ideas.
As you dig in, ask yourself: What is the single most important thing your team can accomplish right now?
I’d love to hear about your own experiences with SuperGoals! Reach out to me to share stories about how SuperGoals helped your team reach unprecedented success, or any other feedback whatsoever. You can find me on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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Start by copying this doc, then head to Choose your SuperGoal.
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1. How do you get people/team to drop other things and focus on this one thing — even when their heart and soul is on another project?
It’s important to emphasize that when using SuperGoals, all other goal-setting rituals must be temporarily suspended. While this is much easier to do on smaller teams with less overhead, process, and structure, it can also be accomplished on larger teams Perhaps most importantly, the larger the team, the more understandable the measure of success must be.
2. How do SuperGoals work in bigger companies?
SuperGoals don’t always need to be leveraged at the company level; they can also be used at the individual team level to help smaller groups focus on a hitting a goal they’re being pressed to hit in broader organizations.
Thanks to the following for their help and feedback: Nir Zicherman, Maya Prohovnik, Daniel Ek, Gustav Soderstrom, Matt Hartman, M.G. Siegler, Lenny Rachitsky, Lane Shackleton, Alex Taussig, Hunter Walk, Shishir Mehrotra, Erin Dame, Justin Hales, Harry Stebbings.
Image credit: NASA