You would have thought that after successfully building my last startup Zaggora.com as CEO for 2 years, I would know how to manage a team. After all, we went from $0 to $30ml in sales in 18 months, scaling to over 650,000 customers – without any investors, or a penny of debt.
Management genius? Think again.
The first time around, there was a lot of things I’d never done before as a ‘first time CEO’. Not just in terms of ‘getting things done’ operationally (supply chain, logistics, production and marketing) – but actually managing a team that grew from 0 to 60 people within 18 months. This isn’t of course unique for a first time CEO. Drew Houston at Dropbox talks about his in the awesome documentary ‘Startup Kids‘ where he says in a startup, ‘you have to do things daily you’re barely qualified for’
There was a lot of things I didn’t do properly, or I did them half-properly, too little, too late when it came to managing people.
Of course, like everyone else I tried to learn as I went along. When I decided to leave Zaggora in October 2013, I decided I would spend 4 months researching the startup successes and failures of others, noting the managerial and operational tactics – to apply them to my new startup Mailcloud.
I wanted to share some of the most interesting insights I discovered whilst reading blog posts, books and talking with highly successful startup founders, CEOs and CTOs over a few months and also how I’m applying them at Mailcloud.
The founding team of 8 here at Mailcloud (including Ted). We have Focus, Process, Motivation.
Top left to right, Malcolm Bell (Me), Aymeric Flaisler (Data Insights), Pawel Borkowski (Engineering). Bottom left to right. Robin Osborne (Engineering), Mark Baker (CTO), Wojtek Turowicz (Engineering), Stephen Nelson (Design & Development). Bottom. Ted (Office Bear)
Will it make the boat go faster?
Remembering my Zaggora experience, at the early startup phase you’re at your most creative. Both individually and as a team. Assuming you know what problem you are trying to solve, validating it and brainstorming the creative ways the problem can be solved, is really the most fun part of a startup. You don’t have any issues you will face in time like your site is down, you’re late shipping your product, there’s no more red bull, the database is jammed.
After the first few weeks, and you focus on building your solution, it’s very easy to develop inertia and get caught up in the daily run of things. Even as a small team. You forget to test assumptions, that you have to build something people want and to keep asking people what they actually want or need from your product or service.
In short, you get comfortable.
You end up doing things that don’t in any way, make the ‘Boat go faster’. This is named after the great book I read by Ben Hunt-Davis who won Gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 as part of the Men’s Rowing 8. His book talks about the success of the team. During preparation and training, they focused only on those things that made their boat go faster (ergo, faster than others and winning – the key objective). If something did’t make the boat go faster, they dropped it.
In startups, making the boat go faster is undoubtedly an analogy for reaching product market fit, the faster the better, by knowing what your startup offers as a product or service, which problem it’s solving and for who.
At Mailcloud, our goal is to help people work easier and faster by providing organization. That’s our one thing. So, to make our boat go faster, if something isn’t going to help people organize, work faster and easier or improve their user experience, we move on and focus on the things that do. Is this conversation going to make the product faster, easier, better? No. Then move on to one that will.
This was actually introduced to me by our awesome CTO Mark Baker, who had been running these daily in the engineering teams at Live Nation and Wiggle for a few years.
The concept is simple, every day you spend 15 minutes as soon as everyone is in, to talk about what each person did yesterday and what they are doing today. Each person takes their turn, with a limit of around 2 minutes. Some people say more, others say less, but everyone has to talk meaningfully about what they are doing.
Not as a ‘this is what I did at school today daddy’ but as a ‘This is what I’m doing and how I’m adding value to make the boat go faster, is it conflicting with what anyone else is doing’ .
Obviously, this is easier in a smaller team (less than 20) than a larger team.
It really works in 3 ways.
1. It keeps people focused on the task at hand, coordinated with others.
2. Everyone is individually accountable for their work, taking responsibility in the team.
3. It reminds you there’s a team, in which you play an important part, and it isn’t just you on your own.
Will there be donuts? – Proper Meetings
Another great book I read was ‘Will there be donuts? by David Pearl. In it, he talks about how most people in the world of work spend their lives in meetings, meetings about meetings. Instead, he advocates a structure to have proper meetings that are meaningful and useful.
No Donuts at Mailcloud :)
At Mailcloud, we avoid meetings with each other.
We have our daily huddle in the morning, communicate using Hipchat during the day and talk to each other one on one. If we do have a meeting, its capped at 15 minutes, with a structure on the purpose of the meeting and what do we want to get out of it. Then, we go back to getting things done.
Communicating with Hipchat
Every startup should define how the team will communicate, where will files be stored, and how things will get done. I read a great story about Facebook in the early days and where most of the engineers would communicate with instant messenger – even if they were sitting next to each other.
At Mailcloud, we are often plugged in coding, so we decided to use;
- Hipchat – Conversation internal
- Email – Conversation external
- Dropbox – Files personal
- G Drive – Company docs and files
- Trello – Work process.
This also allowed us to work with existing tools to develop an intensive, deep understanding of their benefits, limitations and produce a list of things we think could be better. This is working nicely. We are also testing a lot of products from newer startups that we consider to be developing ways to work easier and faster.
In about 4 days, we’ll only be using our own Mailcloud to do all of the above, which is really awesome!.
One of the great things about Hipchat is that you can integrate a Bot.
So, we built our own ‘MrBot’ that can perform a lot of those repetitive database tasks you perform as a team on a daily basis, automatically. Things like querying conversion rates, adding and removing items to the database, managing deployments etc. This means engineers can focus on building the product, rather than constantly having to admin the database querying to distribute to others in the team. It’s efficient.
We also use it to fetch images and animations from the open web. Nuff said :)
Planning and workflow in Trello
One of the first things we decided was that we would have to have a comprehensive, lean and iterative development process with a flexible testing methodology so as to operate an accelerated lean startup model. Our CTO Mark wrote a nice post on this here. I followed up with some thinking behind our ‘accelerated lean startup’ method here.
We use both Trello and our wall to Kanban all of the things we are doing. Trello easily allows teams to create cards of things that need to/be done, to manage them in columns like ‘To do’ or ‘Doing’ or ‘Done’. Each person has their own board as well as process boards that allows us to be sure everything is being done. These are managed by CTO Mark, to be sure the engineering team is always working on the right things, running QA on their work.
This is our wall, where we mirror some of the Trello process.
One thing I learnt at Zaggora is that it’s important for people to be able to vent frustrations.
I say that because it’s something we didn’t really provide a forum for, either as a team or individually, on a regular enough basis. It’s important because let’s face it, we all feel better after a good moan!
So, every Friday we have an OMG Meeting, for ‘Oh my God’. It allows us each to identify those things they think can be improved in the office after that week. Whether it’s a process issue, a tech issue, an environment thing or generally anything they think can be done better. We also highlight the things we think we’re doing well we want to keep on doing.
The OMG Wall, post-its stay until the wall is full.
So, here’s how it works;
1. Each person writes out 4-5 post-it notes for good things and bad things.
2. We take it in turns to put the post its on the wall.
3. Nobody is allowed to interrupt.
4. Nothing personal, individuals cannot be singled out. They are process based.
Yesterday I wrote about the awesome process of a premortem. Imagine you’re dead, what went wrong? Make sure it doesn’t happen. You can read about this here.
This is probably the hardest to achieve, as if the others aren’t hard enough. It certainly helps that we all are working to build something we, ourselves, want to use. We all think managing emails, files and work conversations can be easier and faster, especially on mobile. But, how to achieve rolling motivation – especially knowing things will get tough?
Team is everything
If you’ve hired the wrong people, there’s nothing you will be able to do to build and keep motivation. Sorry.
So, let’s assume you’ve hired the right people. By that I mean, you really need in a startup people who individually have these top 10 characteristics.
1. Specialist experts in what they do.
2. Take a pride in their work
3. Are naturally curious, reading extensively around their skill sets.
4. Naturally motivated, they’re excited when they get out of bed in the morning.
5. Know how to work in a team.
6. Have a passion for problem solving.
7. Are generalists, good at lots of things, not just one thing.
8. Keen to learn new things
9. Like working a lot
10. Comfortable with uncertainty, relishing a challenge. War-time, not peace-time.
Learn from others
To keep ourselves motivated, we like to learn from the best. Twice a week, we watch you tube videos of Y Combinator Startup School, Stanford School and other presentations by successful founders of great tech companies. This helps us realise constantly what we’re doing isn’t a unique struggle, it’s one all startups have to go through and that it’s possible.
This was an awesome Talk by Ben Silberman of Pinterest we watched today.
Meet new people
To relish the uniqueness of a startup, and what a privilege it can be to have the freedom of thought, creative working and team spirit, we invite people from all industries to come to the office to talk about their business, work. We’ve had people come and talk to the team, mainly friends of mine, from;
- UBS Investment Bank
Working in a startup can be intense. Especially when you’re coding all night.
Here’s Pawel the morning after sleeping in the office following a 20 hour code session til 4am yesterday.
So, we have an Xbox, a fridge stocked full of red bull, water and diet coke. We eat together, take breaks, tell jokes and ask MrBot to animate all sorts of weird and wonderful images from the open web. Nuff said.
So far, I’m really happy with our progress and I can’t wait to see what people think of our BETA soon.