The Lisa Frank Sticker Experiment

Yesterday morning, while picking up supplies for our management training course, I saw something on a lower shelf of Walgreens in San Francisco that I just couldn’t pass up: A 1,200-pack Lisa Frank sticker book. I took a sharp inhale and stared.

There’s nothing like a rainbow sticker book to take you back to 1997.

In thirty seconds, my mind flashed back to all of the pencil cases, pen sets, and notebooks; to the late, lonely hours as a 9-year-old in my childhood bedroom decorating blank notebook pages with rainbow unicorns and neon-colored cats; to the crisp, new plastic smell of an unopened trapper-keeper; and to the love note I once wrote to Lisa Frank herself, where I proclaimed her to be my number one role model of life. I knew only one thing: I needed that sticker book.

Reality kicked back in. In my hands, I held the required supplies in my hands that we needed for that day’s training: Post-It notes, pens, small legal pads, nametags. Practical tools for a professional day of new manager training for our portfolio companies. I looked back at the shelf, noting that a three-pack of legal pads cost the same as the Lisa Frank sticker set ($3.99). What a difference $3.99 means to me now, I considered, compared to the era of packing up pennies and quarters prior to trips to the dollar store.

And so in a purely emotional decision that I rationalized as “an important need for my positive mental health,” I snagged the sticker pack. By the time I got to the register, I was still grinning about it.

Sharing the joy of stickers

Hours later, while kicking off our introductory session at our USV Manager Bootcamp, I set out all of the requisite supplies and snacks. In just a few moments, the first batch of 10 managers from USV portfolio companies would be walking into Cloudflare to meet for the first time. Our introductory exercise is always one of my favorite moments for this program — it offers an opportunity for managers at different companies to meet and empathize with shared challenges in management.

As I emptied my Walgreens bag, the Lisa Frank sticker book tumbled onto the table next to the box of nametags. Another urge struck: I wanted to wear one. So I flipped through the sticker pack, peeled off a cute cat playing on a rainbow ball and affixed it to my nametag, giggling incessantly as I left the following instructions on the table:

  • Name
  • Company
  • Lisa Frank spirit animal of choice

Again, I paused and considered how this might be received upon arrival by a room of professional managers who would be meeting me for the first time. To cover my bases, I quickly scribbled in the word, “optional” in front of the sticker selection request and stuck with it.

An unlikely instruction at a networking event: Select your spirt animal.

And then I waited. As the first participants arrived, I was still basking in the childlike glee that comes from playing with colorful stickers, and I smiled ear-to-ear when I showed them my prized book. Much to my surprise, their eyes widened as much as I had as soon as they caught sight of the book.

“Lisa Frank?! I didn’t know she was still around!”

“Where did you find this?”

“Oh wow, this takes me back…”

“Ahhh!! I forgot all about these! This makes me so happy.”

I noticed how seriously everybody took their sticker selection task, making sure to review the options on every page carefully and deliberately. Some people chose stickers that they had fond memory associations with earlier in their lives; others grabbed the first animal that stood out to them.

Stumbling upon something sticky

I hung back while letting the group dynamic unfold and kicked off our training session as usual, with a five-minute spiel about the importance of management, how we think about networks and community-building, and how I hoped we could stay connected throughout the month ahead. Then it was time for introductions.

“Now, let’s go around the room and get to know each other,” I began. “Please share your name, your company, what type of network your company is building, and…” I paused and looked around the circle. Typically, this is that part where I ask participants to share a management challenge or problem they are thinking about at work. But I noted that nearly everybody had elected to affix their nametag with a sticker, and seeing them all made me smile again. I made my third impulsive decision of the day. “…and finally, please share what your Lisa Frank spirit animal says about you or your management style.”

There was a quick gasp in the room. What we had all thought to be an innocuous expression of nametag swag had suddenly become an exercise to rationalize your childhood imagination with your current work persona, in front of a room of strangers. How would this go over? To level the playing field, I went first. “I chose a cat on a ball because a cat truly is my spirit animal, and because I think it’s important for me to remind myself to have a little fun at work. Anyone ready to go next?”

And just like that, whatever group tension had existed initially dissipated almost instantly. Over the next five minutes, people shared stories about penguins on surfboards, polar bear protection instincts, and teddy bear personalities. A group photo of a penguin and a polar bear together represented diversity and inclusion. Santa on a sleigh was a metaphor for a jolly attitude and giving gifts to your employees. The woman who chose a unicorn set her sights on working for a company that would hopefully become one. We laughed and smiled together.

As it turns out, it’s pretty easy to have fun with stickers. What a better way to bring a group of people together than to ask them to immediately share a scary challenge or problem right off the bat. So I repeated the experiment in the afternoon session. That group enjoyed it just as much. That’s when I knew we had hit on something sticky. (Literally.)

Later that night, I attended an evening panel discussion on women in leadership with 40 employees and top role models from our USV portfolio network. When I walked inside, I was handed a new nametag and felt a bit of remorse of having to give up my “spirit animal” version. So I took out the sticker pack one more time and chose a new spirit animal — another cat (naturally) — once again offering this prizepack to those around me. The room, packed full of women growing up in the ’90s, surged around the book, and by the end of the evening, nearly everyone (including all of the panelists) sported funky animals on their nametags.

In the end, the book looked a little like this:

Natural selection of the best sticker animals at its finest

Final sticker distribution count: 54. At $3.99 face value for the sticker book, that comes down to about 7 cents a pop — not to mention dozens of moments of delight, nostalgia, and fun. I was reminded once again that sometimes the simplistic ideas can have the biggest impact. That feels like a pretty good investment to me.

And by the way, for anyone playing along at home…I still have 1,146 stickers left. Looking forward to hearing about your Lisa Frank spirit animal at the next one. But in case you can’t wait, you can pick up your own stickers here.

VP @ BolsterTalent, alum of @USV, @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC