I was recently talking to another CEO at a VC mixer event, who was lamenting the forthcoming challenges she will be facing with a startup that will soon span multiple countries; in particular, the company culture test. How do you create the feeling of a team, and a shared mission, when you don’t even share the same country let alone the same office? (Our entire team actually work from home, much like InVision, so there is no main office).
As I reflected on her pointed question, my thoughts coalesced into three key pillars we have used at Kleeen Software to build a strong and well-connected team: Owning the Outcome, Team Transparency, and Wielding Your Superpower. These are the three facets of a concerted effort by our leadership team, not just myself, which have disseminated to every individual at Kleeen.
Owning the Outcome
Let me begin by addressing the most obvious aspect of this first: equity for everyone. Every FTE at Kleeen Software has equity in the company, with those who joined earlier having a larger equity grant than those who join(ed) later (we are roughly tying equity levels to funding rounds). This both rewards the risk inherent in joining a startup (with more reward for those took the greater risk of joining earlier) and gives everyone in the company the very concrete feeling of it being THEIR company, and therefore their success if we have a great exit.
But the concept of Owning the Outcome goes beyond the explicitness and simplicity of equity. This mantra is inspired by one of my PhD committee members, Dr. Jiawei Han, who always tells his research lab that, “the success of the individual is the success of the team; and the success of the team is the success of the individual.” This is an eminently pragmatic creed that we live every day at Kleeen Software. Mario ( VP of Engineering), Amy (VP of Design) and I all make it very clear for each team member that identifying the problem, stress-testing all foreseeable use cases, and scaling the implementation are all of equal importance to individually implementing a solution. The successful outcome of every particular solution is guaranteed to require the input and effort of others on the team. And every better quality solution improves the quality of the company offering. In a very practical sense, we all own the outcome of this company.
A corollary to this mantra is the rejection of the notion of rewarding “major” contributors over “minor” ones. Who is a minor contributor? Someone whose role is small, or who is not succeeding in their role. Why would you allow there to be any minor contributors on your team? If someone is adding minimal value, taking a long time to accomplish their goals, and requiring extensive management that takes major contributors’ attention away from their own work, they don’t belong at your (startup with limited resources) company. Therefore, we consider that we do not hire, or keep on, “minor” contributors. Documentation, QA, DevOps, Analytics, Design – these roles all provide a major impact to our team, and are treated as such. Currently, as an early startup with a relatively small team, all Kleeen Software team members are creators. We are sure to require more maintenance, communication, and support roles as we grow. But we will not view the people who are maintaining the quality of our product, ensuring the satisfaction of our customers, and facilitating our new exploits as any less valuable.
We all share in the company’s success. Everyone took a pay cut to join early, to work on something big and exciting. Everyone will get a raise at the next company milestone (securing our next funding round). Everyone’s critical value to the company will continue to be explicitly called out. Everyone will have no doubt as to the importance of their role and that the collective effort is what propels the company forward, and in turn, their professional/reputation and financial success.
We strive for full team transparency at Kleeen Software. What is the company doing? What are we telling our customers and investors? How is pay calculated? What is our funding roadmap? All these topics are discussed openly with the full team. We also try to be clear about why we pay what we pay. As I have told everyone, my goal is to pay you enough that you aren’t going to leave Kleeen Software due to a paycheck – but you will not stay for the money either, at least not in the short term. You will stay because the work is exciting, challenging, and a valuable experience. By explicitly setting role expectations and explaining the company’s value propositions we ensure that you stay at the company with your eyes open, and leave because you have truly found a better opportunity for yourself (which we will all be excited for you to have found, though disappointed to loose a skilled team member).
As a personal point of pride, we are open about promotion. As team members demonstrate their growing knowledge, execution, and ownership of their work, we promote them. We are clear about the largely quantitative requirements, responsibilities, and rewards of promotion, because we want our team members to get better (remember, as individuals get better, the quality of the company goes up.)
Another aspect of team transparency is the explicit support of anyone asking any question of anyone else. Motivated by my previous time at Google (as an intern) and Niara (as an FTE), we hold all-hands meetings where everyone is invited and encouraged to speak up. I personally work on facilitating conversations, check-ins, and clarifications, especially across teams.
There is once again a pragmatic motivation for myself and the leadership team to actively work on team transparency, and that is to cut down on rumors, worry, and doubt. When team members know where the company is headed, as well as what they can do as individuals to grow their skill sets and careers, they are truly able to focus on their work, and therefore the success of the company.
It’s true that this approach is completely predicated on trust in your team members, in your leadership team, and in your direct (and indirect) reports. Not everyone thrives, or is even able to work in an environment with this heavy requirement. However, the longer a particular culture (toxic or otherwise) persists, the harder it is to change or upset it. So: start as you mean to go on. Institute the company culture you want through explicit policy and smart early hires, even though it will mean some concrete effort at the outset, and your future team members will find that the path of least resistance is to contribute to, rather than push against the establishment.
Wielding Your Superpower
The result is that the employees of Kleeen Software truly do “own” different elements of the company decision making process. In practice, this means a two-step decision-making process. First is the team perspective: most decisions get reviewed by someone else, anyone can question a decision, and as differing viewpoints develop, a decision can and should get escalated. This seeks to minimize top-down decision making, and reinforce the Own the Outcome aspect of the approach. Team members are responsible for contributing their opinions and speaking up on entire solutions, not just their own “component” of the pipeline. Engineers give feedback on design directions, designers give feedback on engineering choices, and better solutions are discovered along the way
However, this does not work in practice without the second half: someone must put their foot down in the name of timely progress. This is the superpower perspective: the team member leading each component does get the final call on the decision (e.g., the lead database architect will make the final decision on the data storage stack.) This is necessarily hierarchical, without descending into micromanagement. As CEO, I will not force my engineers to use a particular technology against their better judgment. I am too far removed from using individual technologies to have their superpowers of delving into the intricacies of all the available options. But, as CEO, my own superpowers lie in the direction of determining and defining the problems we are solving. I may place constraints on the viability of technological choices for exogenous reasons. I may say, “we have to ship this feature in 1 week so you must make a decision and move on,” (though I have always promised to revisit when addressing our technical debt backlog). I may even ask if my team has heard of a particular technology- and my engineers should respond by wielding their superpower and educating me on why the suggestion is, or is not, something reasonable for us to consider using (frequently the latter, of course!)
And all of this process returns to Team Transparency, as we try to make these decision points explicitly clear. And when someone “uses their super power,” we ask them to make that explicit – and justify it. Decision making should be able to be justified; time, money, features, etc. This minimizes perception that decision making is arbitrary, ensures that no one can abdicate their own role in the decision making process, which results in a higher quality of decisions and outcomes.
I will not claim with certainty that these approaches can scale to a large company, or be fully achievable at a company spanning multiple countries. Even though Kleeen Software is comprised primarily of remote teams, we are still all within at most a couple time zones of each other. The cultural alignments across these teams have undoubtedly contributed to our success. However, we also took the time at the onset of the company to discuss and develop the three pillars (Owning the Outcome, Team Transparency, Wielding Your Superpower). We stress the “ownership” of the company to each team member because we have seen how it makes them stronger contributors, who work harder to push Kleeen Software to realize its full potential. We put team morale and collaboration on the weekly staff meeting agenda to make sure that we are following these approaches to keep our staff motivated and dedicated to the product roadmap. In short, we, the Kleeen Software leadership team, have made these decisions and put forth this effort to consider and actively pursue every possible angle that will make our company more successful.
Cover Image by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash