Season 1 finale: A Conversation with Stephen Green, Luke Kanies, and Mara Zepeda,

[00:00:05] Kristen: Hi welcome back to upright and better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right and up and better. On this show it’s not just about scaling for scaling sake, it’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host Kristen Gallagher.

[00:00:28] All right good morning everybody. I’m super excited to have Stephen Green, Luke Kanies and Mara Zepeda here with me. All of them have been interviewed on the podcast before. We’ve all had actually a pretty long episode. I think it correlates all of you have had the longest episodes too. So that should say Something.

[00:00:47] Luke: If the goal is being short or probably…

[00:00:49] Kristen: Probably not going to work out. Yeah I’m sure it’ll be fine though. Well we’ll figure it out. But I don’t want to introduce you the same way because everybody has probably heard about you so I want to hear what you have been up to lately and we’ll take a volunteer who wants to get started first?

[00:01:04] Luke: I’m happy go first because it’s easy for me and it’s low pressure. So I spent the last year or so it was just around a year ago that I stepped down from puppet and I spent most of that last year doing personal R&D and investing in really understanding what I care about. And I… as part of that I spent two months traveling the U.S. park system with my family in a converted sprinter van and the reading I was doing around that and thinking I was doing really helped double down on the question of like what really matters to me. And if I were to say I have a passion for something what would it be? What am I willing to or able to commit to another decade of my life at? And that question is… it’s answerable in very different ways at different stages of your life. If you’re a person who has no cash and no relationship and no equity in any real sense.

[00:01:53] Kritsen: Can do anything you want.

[00:01:54] Luke: Well the answer to that question you know in some ways has a lot more valid answers and you don’t have to dig as deeply. But when you replace words like well OK I’ve got actually a lot of relationship equity, I’ve got a lot of opportunities, I’ve got a platform that I certainly didn’t have when I started puppet, and it’s not perfect infinite platform to do anything but it’s something that allows me to do way more than I could before. And so the question of what can you do what should you do, In some ways it’s harder to answer because the opportunities aren’t… It’s not necessarily obvious what the opportunities are right when it’s like oh no I need to eat. Then you’re like OK kind of limits what I what I can focus on but what it’s like OK well I know I need to eat but I have other things I could do. That’s the thing that I’ve been really delving into and I certainly don’t have an answer but it’s been an interesting study.

[00:02:40] Kritsen: Yeah. Hey we can talk a little about it this episode.

[00:02:43] Luke: That’d be great.

[00:02:45] Kristen: Mara?

[00:02:46] Mara: I have been…

[00:02:50] Luke: Embarrassing all of us pretty I think.

[00:02:54] Kristen: Pretty much.

[00:02:55] Mara: I suppose that if I were to think about what I’ve been up to logistically you know it’s just keeping up with everything. But what I’ve been up to see thematically is thinking a lot about scale. Just it’s almost like going through whiplash. The best way to describe it every day and some days it feels tennable and other days it feels like it’s coming apart at the seams. I think everyone probably feels that. You know I think you go on the Internet and there’s this sense that you’re just drinking from a firehose of other people’s emotions and that can become… you can just end up getting infected by this feeling and how your day, your day can get totally derailed.

[00:03:33] And then on the other hand it’s been getting really clear and identifying the type of work within the community that I find gratifying and soul nourishing and important and validating and that it’s making a difference. And that scale is just tiny it’s tiny. It’s like dozens of people maybe. And Portland is such a special place for having the opportunity to create, that community is here I call it sort of… my husband and I lived in Florence and living in Portland feels like living in Florence during the Renaissance. I imagine the people here are just incredible. So I think for me thing magically it’s been toggling between this micro-scale of this incredibly affectionate, motivated, talented community where we can get so much done and there’s so much potential in Portland and also in the state of Oregon and then switching to this kind of macro scale that is completely overwhelming and unsustainable on so many different levels.

[00:04:30] So that going back and forth between the big and the small is something that I’ve been grappling with at all the projects that I’ve been working on right now.

[00:04:38] Kristen: Stephen?

[00:04:39] Stephen: So for me I think you know I think it’s been about probably 90 days since I did part of my podcast episode and life happens. There’s been some tremendous ups some tremendous downs.

[00:04:53] You know and just the last 90 days laid off from my job an amazing you know community that in pitch black and seeing people come together.

[00:05:03] Luke: It was so shocking to have the awesome pitch black followed almost immediately by the Exclamation Point laying off.

[00:05:08] Stephen: It was like it was literally 48 hours later and all the while like we you know my wife and I dealt with the cancer scare and you know to face that 90 days where you’re… you know I tend to be a pretty forward thinking positive person and thinking about you know five years or two years ahead. What’s the game plan. And to get a call or to get an e-mail one day and think that you know you may be thinking six months or eight month chunks. It is shocking. But also I think being on this side of it reinvigorating and I really value the relationships I have with people so much more now and I think I think I valued them prior to that. But now especially I just I think I’m I’m super duper present and my North Star has never been more clear than now. And so you know I’m excited about what the future holds and I know it’s going to be something around pouring in to community doubling down on community and really strengthening the fabric of kind of the things that bring us together here in Portland in the region.

[00:06:17] Luke: And on that note actually on the note of perspective you know one of the things that’s affected me and most people I’ve talked to is the loss of Sam Blackman who was somebody who most of us or all of us knew and you know he looked up to in various ways but also saw as you know I certainly took for granted the assumption that he was going to continue to continue to contribute and change his contribution over time and to have that change suddenly both left this gaping hole in the political landscape, the technology landscape, the leadership landscape, but also a lot of people’s personal landscapes and I know everyone I’ve talked to it’s caused a huge amount of reflection because he really was at his peak at the point where he could do so much more. That’s again the platform he had was it was fantastic.

[00:06:58] So you know on that note of perspective it’s it’s been it’s been a heavy input to that for the last couple weeks it has been and I think what I’m hearing common in all of your and all of your voices is the questions of what are the big questions and what are the little questions and maybe we swap that definition sometimes that though the bigger questions are actually how do we work with a dozen people or the community. How do we use that platform a little bit better especially given the political landscape that we have.

[00:07:28] Kristen: Knowing that you know not to be defeatist but we may not be able to make changes that are, you know the top scale changes we may be able to make the changes at a smaller scale which interestingly may have more effect to us so I think that’s what I’ve been learning a lot about in my own business and in my own community involvement. The past 90 days past you know six months.

[00:07:52] We started this podcast and in early 2017 so there’s been a lot of growth and it’s been very interesting to have different voices in my ear every other week and learn about how they’re asking these questions because the the goal of the podcast is to question whether or not we’re going up and to the right the right way. And in what ways are we supposed to be according to the kind of startup canon in the business canon. In what ways could we do that better and better mean so many different things to people. And it can mean on this community level.

[00:08:25] I think what I would like to know too from you all is is as you reflect about this past year what do you think a better business is these days what is a better business in terms of people and scale and profit as you’re trying to build something or whether it’s a business or an organization you’re trying to build that thing. How do you build it better?

[00:08:48] Mara: Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about is seasonality. And seasonality isn’t really accounted for in the startup mindset. So this notion that you’re going to have exponential growth month over month. You know month over month revenue and growth as the month is what you’re always talking about.

[00:09:05] My businesses is in higher education. And so that means that you have to look at the calendar year in a completely different way and it’s very seasonal so spring you know is this time where you’re kind of coming out of the muck and you’re growing and there’s this sense of you know this full push to the end of the year and then you have summer where you know people want to be outside and they want to explore and then fall where there’s this time of sort of reaping what you’ve harvested in spring and then winter of this time of contemplation and some of the reading that I’ve been doing around sustainable business.

[00:09:36] You by definition build in and start to account for times of contraction and reflection. So there’s this notion that you’re going in and out of sort of external outward push energy and then internal reflective energy and businesses that I look up to and sustainable businesses have this model of expansion and contraction and the contraction is equally necessary for expansion and that seasonal metaphor and the reflection of those two different energy types is something that I am now thinking about constantly because it’s just not, it’s not talked about. I mean the notion of contraction in business is anathema, right.

[00:10:15] You would you would not be killing it if you were doing that, but you might be caring for yourself and your team and your community and so much else in the process of that reflection.

[00:10:25] Kristen: That’s so top of mind for me right now because the way that my business has grown in the past nine months is expansion expansion expansion. But I haven’t necessarily paid, for all that I talk about and ask people about on this podcast, I haven’t necessarily paid attention to that seasonality or paid attention to you know for lack of a better term the care that it takes to run and feed and manage the, not just the people in the business, but the clients, and the family, and all of the people around it.

[00:10:56] Not, just to mention that you know service based businesses are seasonal people have fiscal years and things change and they need to get rid of budget or they don’t have any budget or you know even if you’re trying to constantly move forward without paying attention to that then you are almost forgetting why you’re running into certain barriers. You’re like, “Why is this happening?” Well if you had paid attention- I’m saying this almost to myself if you’d paid attention to what was going on in the business ecosystem then maybe you wouldn’t be doing that or maybe you don’t have to work so hard over and over again to jump a barrier. You could just wait a couple of months.

[00:11:34] Luke: I find the concept of a better business is challenging and a lot of ways. And I think, I’m, I think that I’m mentally broken in a couple of strange ways and one of them is that I struggle with ever accepting a definition of good or better or things that smell of altruism. I because I grew up in a commune because I grew up with a huge amount of useless lefty people and I’m incredibly lefty, but at the same time I am allergic to anything that doesn’t that I can’t say here is the concrete effect it will have and anything that doesn’t feel like that is essentially a philanthropic donation in my mind as opposed to in and I’m not saying this is rational or good I’m just saying I understand my brain well enough to recognize this behavior. And I’ve I’ve worked on a lot. But it’s still there.

[00:12:26] And so when I think about a better business I always what I have found as a tool for me is there are if I look at the world through the lens of the rest opportunities and say How can I build a business that does its people right that does all of its constituents rights or does its investors right, of course. But more important does its employees right. Because of those those do have to be your first constituent, does its customers right, does the community around it right.

[00:12:57] But as a business how can I build a business that is addressing, through the opportunity its chosen to address, can have a more positive impact in whatever ways I define matter than other ways and for me at least there are a few things that I have gotten to the bottom of that question of what matters to you? And the things that matter to me most I know now are I have to help people improve their personal lives.

[00:13:26] I dont I don’t get any satisfaction from making an executive or a managers team perform better. It does nothing for me but if I talk to the individuals in the team and they say I’m doing work I’m doing better work that makes me makes me happier and I’m more relaxed at the end of the day more fulfilled in the day than that makes me happy. I look back at puppet it and say the things that made me happiest were never selling to executives. It was selling as this happens and this just happens. I have a job today because of the software you built. I stayed in this job and I shifted who I was and what I did because the work you do.

[00:13:59] So taking people at the front line improving their work product and as a result improving their life satisfaction. And when you look around the market and say how many people out there who could be more valuable and not because their work is more you know but you invest in them and you allow them to invest in themselves you build tools to make them better to turn them into super users and there’s the answer is there’s a ton right.

[00:14:25] Look at what are the unaddressed economic opportunities in our world today where there are people who are fantastic people who haven’t been unlocked and especially the world of software, those people don’t exist that way as well and not if you ask the world of software as the role of venture capital. Janitors don’t exist right the entire cleaning staff the entire construction staff. You’re like you know how much work is, right, all that stuff doesn’t exist right? There’s no, there’s no value, there’s no software opportunity in that world if you ask the world of VC.

[00:14:54] But in my opinion almost by definition of both how many people are there, and how great those people really are. Because it’s not like they’re worse people because you know it’s not that they’re not there because they’re limited in some way. They’re mostly limited in opportunity or because they love what they do and a lot of cases you know mention the kitchen. And also it’s a great opportunity because everyone thinks it’s boring. And to me the best opportunities are those that everyone else thinks are stupid.

[00:15:20] And I like it because it means you’ve got about five years before the market realizes it’s a good idea. So that’s really when I think about a better business it’s one where you can build a great business where you can also build a business where all the constituents look up and say I’m thrilled to be associated with this business in some way.

[00:15:36] Kristen: It makes me think about something that a friend of mine here in Portland Amelia Bray who talks about a lot which is the ethics of care and that we don’t have care in the, I use the term startup canon earlier, but if you are building a startup that’s not, you know there’s no part on your business plan- There’s no question that your investor is going to ask you about how much you care about your employees or the people who make the food that you spend a lot of money on for your employees.

[00:16:06] Luke: There was an amazing article in The Times recently about two janitors one working at Google and one who had worked at Kodak I think. And and she’d be the one at Kodak was an employee and direct promotion through the corporation became the CTO. And the one at Google of course is like three steps removed from being an employee of Google. That person is an hourly worker at an agency that Google probably doesn’t even directly contract with they contract to a third party. That contractor is never going to get a fulltime job. Google much less a full time job at an executive role.

[00:16:37] Kristen: Right. And that’s their way of limiting how much health insurance you have to pay for and how many other things that you can slim off of your bottom line so that you can continue to seek the revenue that you seek rather than to care for the people that are building your revenue for you.

[00:16:54] Stephen I’m curious what’s been on your mind lately.

[00:16:58] Stephen: You know being someone who is a recovering banker and venture capitalists I’ve always I’ve always been fortunate that my financial career I’ve always been able to sit down with you know really successful and sometimes not successful entrepreneurs and hear about you know from 20 years downstream. What’s really important. And people always share two things. One is balance. I would give up a third of this company right now to have been there for prom football games all of those things.

[00:17:27] Luke: Do you to get to the kids proms, isn’t that creepy?

[00:17:30] Kristen: That might be weird…

[00:17:41] Stephen: That’s a bad analogy, soccer games!

[00:17:41] (crosstalk, laughter.)

[00:17:41] Stephen: And then the second thing I always hear is people said they wish they would have started earlier. “I wish I hadn’t have gone the proper route and done a full career.” “I wish I would have taken that idea that I had at 18, and I didn’t put into action until I was 38 or whatever and done something with it” and the power of showing up.

[00:18:00] Luke: Just starting right?

[00:18:02] Stephen: Right! I mean that’s ninety nine percent of being a founders is managing- You know just fake it till you make it. And I always say that being an entrepreneur means you’re smart enough to know something is a good idea but dumb enough not to say no. And that’s what it takes to enter the door. And you know we we all get help along the way. I think one of the things that dawns on me as I talk to early stage founders is no one starts a business saying oh I want to manage a team of people, right? My goal is to be a leader, right? And they never do. Solve a problem, be smart, or whatever

[00:18:37] Kristen: We’re all product people.

[00:18:40] Stephen: Right. And so it’s fascinating to me to see that’s where people really really struggle is the people side of things. I have a friend and in venture capital down in the Bay Area and whenever they interview teams for foreign investment they bring them into the office and they actually have them interact with either the janitor or someone low level that it shouldn’t be important to them at all. Right. The classic go to meal and see how they treat you how they see how they treat the person that they don’t have to treat well. And I think that says a lot about someone who is a leader of a team of how you model that stuff. When you’re when you’re talking to the janitor when you’re talking to someone you don’t have to be nice to.

[00:19:21] Luke: I always relied incredibly heavily on my assistants perspective and she always surveyed everyone around who interacted especially executives because executives are really good at managing up and there are a bunch of them who have never had to manage down they’ve never had to figure out how to make people who again, as you put it theoretically it shouldn’t matter to them shouldn’t have to matter. And being able to have somebody observe all that and who is trusted by all the people to go get opinions and then you know really using that to trim who you bring into your organization. It’s a huge task.

[00:19:53] Kristen: I have thoughts on some of the stuff that Stephen said and thought and stuff Luke said. But there are two two assistants and operations managers and clients that I have that I got if I could hire them immediately I would because they’re they know everything about this business and it’s a huge business and you know it’s like that’s where the truth is going to come from from the people that take the time to talk to every single person on their team and to understand why they’re about to quit or what’s going on. So I think that that test of you know how do you treat people that that might not technically matter to you or shouldn’t matter to you is a really good one.

[00:20:34] Luke: Actually on that note, real quick one of the things that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about. And honestly I think some people in this room helped spark this thought but also Malia and I spent a lot of time talking about how why why do something businesses have to fail in the venture capital model. And I’ve been because one of the things that I’m I’ve concluded is I’m much more likely to start a finance company than a software company. Meaning I want to start a company that build software companies and so one model that is a fund but there are other models too. And I’m leaning towards what apparently is called a studio model where you know I’m finding a small piece but really it’s about generating companies.

[00:21:09] And I’ve been thinking a lot about how you instead of moving from a world where in nine out of 10 fail or seven out of 10 fail and two out of 10 return money and then one out of ten is your big win. How do you what happens or what options what tiles exist to help move to world where probability is a failure is lower but overall returns are either the same or close to the same. Because I think we always say oh well you have to have this number of failures to get the returns but that’s not really the case. It’s just the model that’s that’s evolved over time.

[00:21:36] And one of the things that’s really stuck out I know two women locally who have sold significant portion of their companies is to Vista equity and I’ve been talking to them about Vista’s model and Vista has what appear to be two really significant things they invest in when they walk in the door the first one is we assume that you’re young growing company is not good at operations which is absolutely the case with pretty much everyone. Partially because I don’t think our modern business understands what operations is. I don’t think anybody I’ve never talked to somebody who is really good at it in a growing business.

[00:22:07] But the second so they come and they say we’ve got a playbook and you can run this playbook and we’re going to do most of it for you so you don’t have to even become an expert in it we’re just going to walk in and we’re going to make you ten times better operations out of the gate. Which is amazing. The second thing is they invest heavily in people. And what they mean by that isn’t the standard we’re going to send you to a lot of training and blahblahblah. What they mean is they consider the success of the people involved in the organization as critical to the success of the organization and they invest in that the same way as if you said hey this product is critical for us. How much money are we spending on it right. If you say my people are my best asset but how much money are you spending. How what are you doing to ensure they are the thing that succeeds. Right if you consider them failure modes.

[00:22:46] And so one of things I’ve been thinking a lot about in terms of building that better business is how can a model built on the assumption that we don’t want you to fail right. We want to help you succeed. But because we know that you’re an ignorant entrepreneur who has a you know a bright shining light you’re running out but not much else to go for. How can we help ensure that you will succeed and surround you with skills and assets and playbooks that work on yes on operations yes on how to build a product and how to ship technology and how to sell and build a marketing and sales funnel.

[00:23:21] But also on how to build a team and how to think about the team and how to interact with your founders if it founders no longer getting along as one of the major sources of startup failure. Isn’t that a thing you can manage. I’ve had it. I’ve worked with many big investors. I know a ton a ton of founders who have. I’ve never heard of one who said oh yeah they basically put us into like a six month coaching program that we had to spend 10 percent of our time on to ensure our success because it gave us $10 million shouldn’t. You know I’ve never heard of it. But to me you look back and you go in that like the most obvious way of ensuring success. And so you look at the fact that investors don’t invest in that again.

[00:23:57] General (indistinct) and it makes a really clear statement about their business model which doesn’t mean their models are wrong but it does present an economic opportunity to others who want to build a different model.

[00:24:07] Kristen: Steven you and I talked about this earlier this year I said you know maybe I should sell Edify’s services to investors right because investors want their companies to succeed and I can quickly draw the line between OK if you want better sales quotas failed then how about you enable your salespeople. Right and if you didn’t enable them with training what else can we enable them with. Right. But that and I draw you know a b c but it quickly goes from A to Z in most investors minds. And I you know I quickly put the brakes on that idea that you and I talked about. Maybe that’s the network that I need to be building rather than the CEOs and VPs of engineering because you know it just wasn’t making sense right.

[00:24:49] Luke: They say they care.

[00:24:50] Kristen: They say they care but you know you want to spend a measly ten thousand dollars on building up you know your engineering teams onboarding and they suddenly freak out. But you also want to remind them that they’ve got a 25 percent attrition rate you know I mean the money you said earlier you know how much money are you putting in to your people. You know if I tried to pull an H.R. budget from most of my clients it wouldn’t exist because they don’t have budgets. But if you go pull their marketing budget it’s multiple millions of dollars. Right. So you’re definitely working hard on something but it’s not your people.

[00:25:24] Stephen: Well I think the other thing is people always think you know pouring pouring gas on anything makes it better. Right so if we can just put money into it then it ought to get better as opposed to when you take a look at you know I love Dan Pink’s book Drive and he talks about what motivates people post the industrial revolution and that’s it’s not money. You actually get worse results when you try and pay people more.

[00:25:47] Luke: Try telling that to a sales leader though right.

[00:25:49] Kristen: That’s the different nut. I think there’s like something with no sales leaders listen but there’s like something wrong with that. It is.

[00:25:56] Stephen: But what I would say that the sales leader is you’re quantifying the wrong things and I agree that you should try and quantify because things that get measured get done, right?

[00:26:05] And I think there’s other things that you should be focusing on beyond just those unit metrics that you’ve you’ve been sold are the the the only way to go. And so you know I think about I got to listen to Barbara Cochran do a talk one time and she talked about growing her real estate business and she had one of her best performers this woman that went on to pick you know be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and she went to go visit her one day in her big office right by Central Park and as she walked in you know she’s looking at a $30000 table and all this great stuff.

[00:26:40] And behind this woman’s desk in this amazing ornate cabinet was this $5 award that Barbara gave her when she worked for her. And Barbara was like I wish I could have paid her more which didn’t have the money so I can put this cheesy idea of these awards for the people that were you know the leaders in the shop every quarter and here we were 15 plus years later and this woman’s got this cheesy award right there. And so you know just acknowledging people and saying the words I want to see grow and be better. Sometimes that’s better than putting them in the five day long class or training or whatever because most people never hear that.

[00:27:24] Kristen: Simply flipping your I mean to me one on one is the easiest way out rather than sending somebody who is training. I say how much do you talk in your one on one with your person. Oh wait you don’t have one on one. OK so that’s your first problem. All right step one- one on one. Step two if you’re talking 70 percent of the time you’re doing it wrong. Right.

[00:27:43] And so there’s there’s time for you to talk too but questioning the manager who probably also is freaked out of their mind to have to manage people because nobody ever taught them how to manage people in all of their managers were probably bad. I mean there’s some serious emotional baggage that I think we forget that people bring into the workplace and how are we offering people that opportunity just like I believe in you I hired you. I know that you can do this work. Let’s let’s go do this work how can I help you do it. So with that we’re, I want to wrap up a little bit but the last question I want to ask you is what’s one thing that you are going to take into 2018 from what you’ve learned this year.

[00:28:24] Luke: I can’t conceive of not taking the whole thing. I mean it’s it’s been a super weird year right? I think for probably for everyone at the table, it’s been a pretty weird year. Sounds like it’s been an inflection year for you and a lot of ways.

[00:28:37] It’s been a strange year for me because it’s felt kind of like retirement. But I know that I have to keep working but I’m afraid to start working again. And so I think the thing that I have to take in… the thing that I thing that I have to develop for next year is is not a direct answer to a question but I’m going to have to build up and carry into the year as opposed to think that I have is I have to, I always describe myself as the laziest person around. I don’t I like doing the least amount of work possible and I don’t really have a work ethic of it I don’t want work. I basically can’t.

[00:29:11] So I have to find that that clean line from where I am and what I’ve done and what I have the opportunity to do into a thing that I can invest in for a long time and that I think can make a difference in ways that will motivate me because I think a lot of things that should motivate me don’t. And so I have to find the things that do actually motivate me and will convince me to spend time away from our new kittens and my kids and my wife and my house and things like that.

[00:29:35] Stephen: You know if I’m talking to you know a founder or somebody is thinking about being a founder I guess there’s there’s really two things. One my life changed when I made a contract with my wife when we wrote down: These are the things that are untouchable no matter how busy we get no matter how we don’t miss these five or six things right and they don’t have to be big things whatever. And two great things happen when you pour into other people.

[00:30:01] I’ve been floored by the support that’s happened. You know losing my job. But also with pitch black people people get a lot out of helping other people and they want to do that. And and it’s, I hate seeing founders go and think they have to wear all the hats and do all the work and show that they’re the lone wolf when in actuality no one gets anything done by themselves even if they think they are they’re not they’re somebody removing a barrier for them somewhere and other people get a lot out of just helping you move down that path. And people shouldn’t be afraid of that. They should embrace that and find time while they’re really really busy with their startup to do that for other folks.

[00:30:39] Mara: Yeah I think to piggyback on that when I was at pitch black I was so blown away. I mean Stephen has just accomplished so much with that whole event is just beautiful just like so so beautiful. My God. And I think you know I had a really big mentality shift because suddenly you know these 12 or 13 black founders that were pitching and it became very clear that like the opposite mentality of what we’ve been holding had to apply for us to move forward which was we can’t afford for any of these to fail. You can’t afford churn anymore. You can’t afford this mentality of disposability, you can’t afford to treat people like trash and assume that there’s just this endless pipeline and pitch black was… just embodied this completely opposite ethos.

[00:31:29] And what I’m seeing and I think but I’m feeling is every opportunity that we have to care more and to support one another and to really show up and to be there for each other is what we have to be doing in this time. And so it is the total opposite of the ethos that we have around that disposed around just the cadence of everything that surrounds us. You know how fast your Twitter feed goes how disposable things are. The culture of disposability has to be countered by the culture of care and that work takes so much self awareness and introspection and work on your self in order to actually manifest that into the world. And it’s it’s just work you have to do on yourself concurrently to trying to create this repair in the world as well.

[00:32:17] Kristen: So the big takeaway is everyone needs more counseling I think.

[00:32:21] (Laughter)

[00:32:21] Kristen: But I’m actually serious.

[00:32:23] One I think I also think people need to understand the scale of what they do. I was lucky last week to sit down with a former Marine and he talked about you know the most powerful thing in war is a grain of sand. And I was like what? And he was like All it takes to stop a weapon of mass destruction is one grain of sand. And it was a really powerful metaphor for me as he went through like you know if you get a grain of sand in your rifle or whatever you can do anything with it you’re done. You’re stripping down you’re doing all these other things just for this one little grain of sand and so it’s a really powerful thing when I think people feel like oh I have to be doing big stuff. No. Like just be that one little green and say and do one thing like say hi to somebody today give something you know show up at their event even if it’s for five minutes because you’ve got a ton things going on.

[00:33:14] Luke: And climbing that huge cliff in front of you is usually too frightening for people to step up and it’s too big of a thing to take. But if you can build a path of small steps then you can do way more. And of course because it’s small steps you need help and because you’ve got help you’re a bigger movement and all these things cascade in a way that just looking up the steep cliff and saying I can’t climb that you know.

[00:33:35] Kirsten: And I think as we close one thing that I’ve learned from all of you and especially some of the work that you’ve done Mara too is being patient and knowing too that not you won’t climb that mountain today. It will be a couple of years potentially or months or whatever the timeline is. I think there is an ethos that wants you to climb tomorrow and but knowing that you’re probably going to break your back and also ruin your relationship and all of these things will fall apart for you if you try to do that. So I think that’s sort of swimming the opposite direction can sometimes help in this. So with that I just want to say thank you again. And I’m so lucky that I get to live in the same city with all of you but thanks again for being here. We’ll talk again soon.

[00:34:24] Everyone overlapping: Thank you.

[00:34:28] That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggested guest e-mail me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Till next time. Grow better.

Episode 12 – Better Systems

Kristen: Hi welcome back to upright and better the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right and up and better on this show. It’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake it’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

Kristen: I’m very excited to talk with our guest today. But before we dive in I want to tell you about something that I’m working on called human scale human school is the conference for people operations people and it is February 27 and 28 here at Portland Oregon’s own Mark Spencer hotel and it’s just a little conference for about 100 people. We’re going to be talking about people it’s how to have a more human human resources operation. And it’s really about the knowledge the context in the community that you need to really be a people we’re in the people operations and human resources arena. So if you’re the type of person who is the people operations person either unofficially or otherwise at your company you really need human school. If you’re feeling like you’re behind the curve or you don’t really know what you don’t know about people operations human school is definitely for you. So we’ll be taking a practical approach to learning human resources so everything from all of the employee lifecycle from start to finish. And that’s not something that you’re going to see at most H.R. conferences so this is very hands on. It’s a one track conference you’ll leave with an actual people operation strategy that you can use in your own business. The very next day and we’re going to be talking both philosophy and tactics so you’ll know that you’ll walk away with something really really useful.

Kristen: So earlybird tickets have closed now but tickets are still open and pretty affordable so if you go to w w w dot human dot school you can find out all the details are amazing speakers and what workshops we have in store for you. And that’s again it’s human school and we look forward to seeing you there in February. Now let’s get into the episode. So my guest today is Kuranda Adair and she helps entrepreneurs who are ready to stop spinning their marketing wheels and get serious about creating an online marketing engine for their businesses. She’s the founder of KARVEL digital. She’s a proud Portland native and she’s a recovering WordPress developer. Crondall became a programmer at 34 and has spent the last few years really learning what makes Web sites profitable and rescuing business owners from ill informed technology decisions. But most recently she’s been kind of a fanatic about systems in her business as you’ll see from her conversation. So she hopes to craft online marketing experiences that capture clients attention. Introduce them to the brand and turns them into customers. And that’s something that businesses that are growing need. Obviously we need to talk about profit not just systems on this business. So if you don’t find her busy building these amazing systems and these funnels you’ll probably find her on one of her five bicycles reading a book or trapped under a can. So if you’ll help me welcome Corunna.

I’m so excited to have Kronda Adair from KARVEL digital has today tried to tell us how you are today.

Kronda: [00:03:30] I am having an interesting day filled with interesting challenges.

Kristen: [00:03:35] It sounds that sounds like the life of a business owner.

Kr: [00:03:38] Yes I will start ranting if I get into it.

Kristen: [00:03:45] Well I sure will get into a little bit of it because you and I have talked to you cause you are pretty much making sure that I don’t screw anything up royally with Human.School’s website teaching me pretty much everything I ever needed to know about WordPress along the way. And part of what you’re doing though the work we’re doing is letting me see a shift in your business and so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you have been doing and what you’re doing now and why you shift it in.

Kronda: [00:04:19] Sure. So I started out almost five years ago as a WordPress developer. Freelance work Press development. I would basically make a website for anybody who wanted work and had some money.

Kronda: [00:04:33] And as the years went on I started learning more about marketing and what makes Web sites actually profitable and useful to businesses and so that sent me on a quest to try to find clients who really needed those things who work. You know because it’s it’s always more gratifying and more exciting to work with someone and feel like you actually made a positive impact on our business. Not that that you know giving people new Web sites doesn’t do that but that’s just the starting line at this point in time. You know it used to be like getting a web site. You slap it up there and you were dead.

Kronda: [00:05:11] You existed on the Internet and that is so the case and are so much more required if you want your website to actual work as a marketing and sales tool 3 which is there all the time so you might as well make it work as well as it can. And so yeah I’ve been making a sort of public shift via my weekly e-mail newsletter over this year from being a development company and more a digital marketing company and becoming really more of an agency. And so that’s necessitated. You know losing some clients who really weren’t interested in that or couldn’t afford that which seemed kind of backwards to say I’m not interested in marketing but I can’t afford you like those things seem related to me but I think they are. But you know everybody is in a different place with their business and what they want to focus on. So I’ve just been really really more intentional about who I work with and trying to get a good match because when it’s not them it’s just it’s frustrating on all sides. People aren’t getting what they want and you’re not getting to know actually do things that will move the needle for them. So it’s been it’s been a year of sort of holding pattern while I have this business identity crisis and try to figure out really what are the few things that I want to focus on doing well. And so I’ve settled part you know marketing and marketing funnels meaning not just the Web site but how now the content for the Web site and landing pages and email marketing. I really like e-mail marketing as a tool.

Kronda: [00:06:52] And a lot of people sort of have negative connotations or skeevy associations with it. And I really enjoy it because it’s really just communication.

Kristen: [00:06:59] I really appreciate how holistic your view is business. It reminds me of some feelings that I had in profit sector where I felt like we were not just now in some cases was not actually supported by the work that we were doing on the role of the work doing was supporting the mission you all of these little pieces that weren’t actually talking to each other and we needed kind of a bigger picture of how we are going to all move forward in this direction together. And I think that that’s what you do from the outside. You know it you think that’s what you’re doing with your business. You’re not going to be able to have a successful business for such if you can’t tell people about it and if you can explain it to you. Wow.

Kronda: [00:07:56] Exactly. And I’m a writer by inclination and experience. So that’s you know I’m basically trying to shift it so that my my role in the company is more about you know creating my own marketing content and really the community the communication aspects of marketing which is which is the most important piece. And so getting away from you know having conversations with clients about Logos and colors and you know things that are are important but not necessarily the most important to them. Earlier today I was thinking I was thinking about what this week’s newsletter because I haven’t written that yet. I was thinking what would happen to your what like what would people’s Web sites look like if they just stripped everything away except the words.

Kristen: [00:08:49] I think I’m kind of terrified right.

Kronda: [00:08:52] But that’s really I mean the great. Yeah. So I don’t know I think it’s a good exercise and a good thing to think about and I just rebuilt my web site because it was you know vastly outdated and not not really putting forth a message based on what I want to be doing in the future and so I recently relaunched it but I’m probably going to you know go and play around with some different things and maybe scale it back even more. We like OK what is you know what’s the least amount of fluff I can have here. And so communicate exactly what I want to achieve.

Kristen: [00:09:31] I think it’s a very interesting exercise. You know what if you take away the crutches that you’re meaning. I hope this isn’t too too much of a leap but I think that as we grow companies and organizations we lean on crutches is something you and I have been talking about a lot lately just fine. The systems are busy. You know you have been in business much. You have reached a scale already where you know you’re not the only person. In order to do the work that you want to do you have to put in place just makes sense. I wonder if you can you know talk a little bit about when you realize that in order to grow a sustainable business you have to think in systems and what you’ve done.

Kronda: [00:10:22] Well I think I realize that probably over three years ago I mean I’ve I read a book called Traction. Get a grip on your business by Gino Wickman. And that’s an awesome book and I actually have a blog post called wire freelancer’s so flaky. And it talks about it talks about us and I compare it to. We recently had a fence built -it’s an enormous fence we called the fortress of solitude. It’s a seven foot fence with six foot by seven foot gate. And we hired a very expensive fence company to build the first section of this. And they were totally on top of it. Like if they said we’re going to send you a quote. They said the quote if they said we’re going to be here you know at this time the sales rep showed up at that time and the day before they started the sales rep said something about their Wednesday meeting and the issues list which is a very us traction term and I said Oh. Has your boss read this book. He’s like oh yeah that’s how we operate our company. I said oh that’s why everything is so together.

Kristen: [00:11:35] Can you define EOS in case it’s unfamiliar.

Kronda: [00:11:40] Sure. It’s entrepreneurial operating system. And so we’re interested in that and the book and its iOS worldwide dot com is the Web site and so gives you a framework for running and scaling your business. And as soon as he said that I just instantly knew like that’s why you charge what you charge and that’s why your organization is so good. And you know if you if you’ve experienced hiring contractors for your house that gets it’s not that way usually And you know the person we hired to actually execute our landscaping plan like it’s definitely not that way. So it makes a huge difference. And so I realized that a long time ago as far as like when I started doing something about it that’s. In a serious way probably in the last like three to four months and months. Mostly a question of you know not having the resources and having been taken up with a lot of client work and things like that you know cobbler’s kids and all that kind of stuff. So the other book that I read that was sort of life changing is called warped the system by Sam carpenter. And you can actually download that for free at work the system dot com.

Kronda: [00:12:53] And I sort of had I keep telling people I had a religious conversion because now I just go around asking business owners like have you accepted documentation… Yeah exactly. That’s me. I’m like I’m this close to going like business to business and being like no seriously have you seen this like this is how you get freedom.

Kronda: [00:13:32] Because imagine imagine any any company with like you know 10 employees or even or 50 or 100. How you know most small business owners are. We’re doing everything ourselves. We’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off. We’re fighting fires all the time. Imagine multiplying that by 50 people who can’t do their jobs unless they’re checking with you all the time about what to do. You have to. You have to write things down. You have to systemize so that you can have people help you you know run your company. And it seems so obvious when you get it and yet you know 99 out of 100 small business owners either don’t get it or they get it but not enough to actually do something about it. And so I recently hired my first dedicated part time person and all he’s doing right now is taking the systems that already existed and putting them in one place. And then we’re sort of this bull terriers and say OK what are the things that need to be worked out first. What are the high priority things. And so even you know even the weekly newsletter that I did that was the first thing I had to create a system for and what I did was record myself doing the task just in a like screen flow video. And I sent that to him and to him right the process and then we went back and forth a little bit with we giving him feedback and critique and making changes until I felt like OK this is a good representation of how this thing is done.

Kronda: [00:15:07] And then after that I handed after him I said this is this is yours now you own it like I’m going to write the newsletter. You’re going to you know imported into the email marketing tool and spell check it and tested it and you know make make sure the links work and schedule it. That’s your thing. So that’s that’s an hour that I get back a week. And then it’s like compound interest. We’re just going to repeat that cycle until I get more and more of my time back think and do more of the higher value tasks.

Kristen: [00:15:38] I really appreciate what you said just a minute ago. He’s basically taking something that you know you you have been trained to he probably read too much time. Your time is fascinating. And I think you know I think your direct quote was my business major to get it or they don’t want to get it or they don’t get enough to actually do anything about it and it’s something that I see a lot in the works that I do with onboarding where you know a lot of the time the answer is well everyone will be fine just picking up in the water. Right. But I think businesses like yours mine and many other businesses. Truthfully under other people you can’t take it up and it has to come from some other human who tells you these things straight and you know be on the receiving end of that when there’s no system. No not really stressful experience. I mean I would I would argue that it’s a negative way to bring in a new part time work. I’m curious and that’s something that you guys used to use.

Kronda: [00:16:55] Yeah. So I mean one of the things that will be higher priority is you know since this is the first time I was hired someone had a little bit of onboarding mapped out. But you know the way the way to actually make this happen mechanically is that. Once you make the decision like yes I’m going to create this process and document how things are done. Then everything that you do if it is not already documented and you know it’s going to have to happen again then you should be documenting it as you do it. And so you know as I’m onboarding Dylan I’m writing down the things like OK he needs these passwords he needs access to these things he needs to review the company’s strategic objective like you know I’m dumping all of that into the into the software that they use to create systems and then he and I you know will meet and I’ll get his feedback on it. OK what was good about your onboarding process and what would you what do you wish you had had sooner or had access to or you know what resources would have been helpful and will improve that process so that the next person that I hire they’re going to have a better experience and then they’re going to improve the process. And you know as you bring people on you know you’re not necessarily treating all these procedures yourself. The people who do them should be the ones who are treating them because then you get by because the other half of the equation is that people who actually have to follow the processes or they’re no good.

Kristen: [00:18:26] Right exactly.

Kronda: [00:18:27] And I think that’s really what the interesting challenge is to write it rationally leveraging resource elsewhere in the business. Somebody who can actually do that again for you or me. It’s something I tell my clients. You know once you’ve built this process first time your technical team like Do you ever have your new hire being what you got every corner with you and bring bring in new people to the process and have them critique it and have them up to it. They’ve got fresh eyes right and so similar exactly the same. I think it’s in that space of systems.

Kronda: [00:19:08] Yeah absolutely.

Kristen: [00:19:10] So you happen as you talked about this and as I kind of watched your business change even in the last year I can’t help but think that you are trying to build you know quote better business. And I always like to ask people what they think better means the price. You know with a great inventor there’s a perspective that we have about how we’re building businesses. And so I’m curious what does better mean to you and for you. Are there personal implications or social implications in that.

 

[00:19:43] Good question. Better means a lot of things for me right now it means more profitable because that’s really been an issue for the past year and a half or so. Thanks to you know just the trials and tribulations and the hard knocks and you know wearing some expensive lesson was part of it. And also you know not having the right clients and not being able to charge you know what I needed to to really get them results. And so that’s that’s definitely part of it. And then better also means that that me and my team don’t spend time fighting fires. We spend time improving systems because as you said like once you once you actually have created a system the first time then you can just continually improve it.

Kronda: [00:20:38] And as long as everybody is following that that documentation then you’re always doing a task in the best possible way that you know how to do it. Because if you find a flaw in it you can improve it immediately. And so that compounding interest comes in when you get to the point where things start to run really smoothly. And I’m not spending my day fighting fire. I’m spending my day you know improving systems or you know thinking about strategy for my clients and how I can you know improve their systems. And you’re also leaving your clients better because the kinds of things I’m doing now like I try to document as much as possible if I do you know like we created an e-commerce store so we’re documenting for the clients internal team. Here’s how you create a new product. Here’s how you added new products. You know the things that they’re going to want to do where they don’t necessarily want to have to call us you know call the developer Every time to do these small tasks. And so if those are written down then you’re just creating you know quote unquote machines that that can run themselves while you do other things.

Kristen: [00:21:51] I really like the idea of creating you know basically templates can be pulled and reused and continually updates.

Kristen: [00:22:02] And I think you know as I think about the kinds of businesses that are looking to build something that is more than just for traffic it has some positive social implications some impact actually. I can’t help but think that existence building systems is actually no don’t reach those goals. Yeah because you know as a business owner if I’m spending all my time fighting fires then.

Kronda: [00:22:31] That’s you know a lot of people come to me and you know want me to mentor them right. They want to quote unquote pick my brain which I hate that phrase. You know but they want. They want to know like you know how did you get where you are. And I can’t I don’t have time for any of that because I’m completely focused on OK I have to get the business you know running well and profitable because I don’t you know what I think when people have jobs and they know like oh I’m getting this paycheck every two weeks. Sure you can give away your free time to people who are up and coming in the industry and that’s fine. But I can’t do that until I get this all figured out and I’m running well. So I really like helping people but I literally had to put a pay wall around my life and say nobody gets my free time because it’s not free.

Kronda: [00:23:20] That’s you know that’s my business is consulting and teaching people so until until that is sustainable I can’t give away my time even to people that I you know would normally want to help or not. A It’s not a place I enjoy being. I really like helping people.

Kristen: [00:23:38] That is so true. And I you know if you can match this you can invest time that I. You are one of the people that taught me about that taught me about value. And I started to see it in my own business where you know some of want you to review their resume or are you you know point them in the right direction and you probably said that they could do by looking at your door you know doing some research around. And it’s a good balance because you know on the one hand I keep thinking I want to be generous with my time because people were generous with me. But if I think back to the people that were generous to me and I don’t know if is true their business is worse successful. Right they has to deal with. And they have gotten to places too I think about when I get on the airplane my safety is put on your mask first.

Kronda: [00:24:37] Helping other people save those. All right.

Kronda: [00:24:41] I say that like weekly. Yeah. Put your own mask on first.

Kristen: [00:24:46] Right. So because I don’t think we’re going to be able to reach sustainable scalable business. But how do you and reaching a sustainable scaffold business means that we will have an extra you know maybe some money to do philanthropy or some time jaunt here. You know everybody is totally free to do what you want. For example I completely disagree with what you said.

Kronda: [00:25:11] Yeah and that’s been nice since I started also to focus on the edge as an educational piece of my business. Well I recently admitted that I have two businesses so the is the second one is more of an educational thing and and with that model I’m able to reach more people because I’m able to create things that scale and actually just this week I’ve been talking to Mercy Corps about teaching a class for them teaching or marketing online working class. And so you know that’s part of better business. Right. And you know because I’m still going to get paid for that. But it’s also helping you know brand new women in business in particular to hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls that I’ve seen with a lot of my past clients.

Kristen: [00:26:00] I look for just one thing and I want to also ask you to get into how you actually skew your business. What advice do you think people should know about your business. So we cannot try sustainability. There.

Kronda: [00:26:21] Yes. So I have a lot of mentors. And the thing about all the mentors they’ve had is that is that I’ve paid most of them. And that’s you know. So when people come to me and the like oh give me all your free time I’m like No no I learned all this because I paid people who made it their business to you know to try to help help people. So there’s a there’s a real commonality with all my mentors and it has to do with that system’s mindset. And and. Being able to envision and look at your business as something that’s separate from you because when you start out especially when you start out freelancing or doing kind of a service thing where you know certain you are the business if you’re going to scale an F scale to you means bringing in other people then you have to change your mindset and view the business as a separate entity. And so one of my mentors actually builds a course called How to how to build a business that runs without you. And he sort takes you through getting that mindset thinking about if you couldn’t do anything with you know you physically like can’t do anything to run your business then what are the roles that you need to fill and where you know where the responsibility is going to lie and so that’s a mindset that it generally takes awhile and if you if you’re listening to those and you’re about to start a business or you want to start a business and you can somehow get that mindset from the beginning. Wow.

Kronda: [00:27:53] How magical Would that be. So I think that’s that’s one of the big things and then the other thing about scaling is just thinking about. A business model that’s sustainable. So the reason I sort of now have two businesses that I really want is to create an educational product. I wanted to create an online course that you know I could promote to as many people as possible and that getting a new customer and then mean oh I have to work another 20 hours a week because that’s not scale more sustainable. So you know getting getting knowledge out of my head getting it into onto the Internet in some form and being able to share that with people was really important to me and so. So there’s that’s you know sort of two sides of that coin is one you can have a product that you know you can just sell as many as you want then it doesn’t require any extra work for you. Or you can set up. You know systems using other people or even if you’re solo you can still you can still set up systems that make you more efficient. And that’s a way and you can still one thing Sam Carpenter the work the systems author talks about all the time is automate delegate and delete. So if you think of every task that you do and ask yourself Can I automate this. Can I delegate this or do I even need to be doing it. You know you could buy back a lot of time that way by by running running your week through that filter.

Kristen: [00:29:22] I should probably be doing it.

Kronda: [00:29:25] Well I’m delegation as you know for control freak business owners like delegation it’s really hard to get good at. And that’s that’s one of the other things is you know I’m still in the first month of having this dedicated person. And so when when I’m reviewing some task and it’s not quite the way I wanted it like the instinct to do just be like OK I’ll fix it because it’s just doesn’t take me any time and. And you can’t do that because that’s not the way to scale. You have to go back and say OK here’s the feedback here’s why I need it to be this way. You know let’s fix the process if necessary. But you you have to give up that control and you have to start empowering other people.

Kristen: [00:30:10] That’s. I think there’s something hey it’s a little bit of backtracking. But you said something I want to do just a little bit that you do matters. And I have gotten to a place in my business this year where I could do the same and I just feel so much better about it when I’m asking people for help actually exchange value for their time providing you know that exchange. And I also think and wonder if having a better business involves you know paying people families for what they’re worth and what they bring.

Kronda: [00:30:51] Absolutely. Yeah I mean that’s that’s essential if you’re just sort of take take take that’s not. That’s not equitable and it’s not it’s not sustainable because. You know if you’re doing that then how is that person supporting themselves if they’re already have a successful business and they’re just want to volunteer. That’s one thing. But if you’re talking to someone who’s let’s say in the first you know five years in the business chances are either they’re still figuring it out and them and so yet having that sustainability and you know in my early part of my year was filled with people of telling me telling me how valuable I was without actually offering me any. And so I I kind of developed the trigger about it. Yeah. So yeah I’m just much more appreciative of people who do understand that the importance of that and what.

Kristen: [00:31:46] It’s essential. Yeah I think what you’re. It seems like what is underpinning is respect and mutual respect and that if you have shifted your mindset to a place then your interactions with people won’t be reminded of something I saw this week. You know I don’t know that story but long story short a UK tourist was all I was trying to haggle. It was not always coming downforce Eugenius you wanted to buy a policewoman was rightfully area said about it. You know I just kept thinking Why. Why couldn’t you just buy you know.

Kristen: [00:32:37] Yeah yeah.

Kristen: [00:32:38] She just come home. So it’s not like she couldn’t spend a couple more hours you know their fundamental problem with that situation is a lack of respect for that person.

Kronda: [00:32:51] Yes and I’ve had situations where you know clients who are paying other other companies or other people to do you know sort of parts you know manage parts of their business would come to me and say well we’re not quite sure that they’re they’re doing this thing correctly like can you. You know what do you know about it. Can you take a look at it but then not want to pay me flag. And I know it’s not that you don’t have the money and so you know I think I think part of that is just you know who I am right. So would you be doing this if I were a white straight dude. Probably not. So I think that’s definitely part of it. And. And then I think there’s some aspect of people just they don’t really think about what they’re doing and how how it looks and how it how it feels.

Kronda: [00:33:41] Yeah. There’s one of the reasons I’m doing just talking with you and learning from you is that I don’t know if you caught this. To me it’s almost like this mindfulness that you have about the way that you approach your business your approach social events people in it. It seems to me that you’re really trying to be mindful of how you are right and wrong. And I think probably causes you to be really aware of how other people are not mine.

Kronda: [00:34:14] Yeah I think that’s true and I I definitely feel that after my you know my quote unquote religious conversion like you know it’s really really tough sometimes to watch other people flounder and struggle and try to say well hey have you heard of this other way of doing things and you know they’re not ready they’re not ready.

Kronda: [00:34:36] And then on the flip side like hiring people like this landscaping thing that I’m in the middle of where you know we have this great experience with the fence company and now we’re having just the total opposite experience with you know the actual building of our landscape design where the attention to detail is lacking the communication is lacking. And we’re doing every you know we’re doing so much product managing ourselves and it’s like we are is not what we’re paying you for. So yeah it really heightens your awareness. You know like oh well there’s always an element of you know everybody is kind of winging it and nobody really has all the answers none of them do.

Kronda: [00:35:22] But but you should be getting like closer to knowing what you’re doing is at 80 percent.

Kronda: [00:35:30] So yeah it’s it’s interesting when you have a shift like that and then to watch the rest of the world and through that new lens.

Kristen: [00:35:38] Yeah. You know this is the first year. I always try to apply it sort of almost never just because I get other businesses too aren’t there people which doesn’t include you know what systems you use and how you tell people how you do it you do whatever and so I had to start but it is just for him she is hired people and bringing contractors. And once you start it it is kind of like a religious conversion once you get back.

Kristen: [00:36:16] It’s almost like this lens. It seems so obvious. Well this is obviously the way to grow the business in a way that makes you pull my hair.

Kronda: [00:36:30] Exactly.

Kronda: [00:36:32] Yeah. I mean but one thing I will say about that is when you’re at the beginning of that process it does require a leap of faith because you know it. It reminds me of. There’s that book that the life changing magic of tidying up and opinions. Well OK so good but but the essence of any process like that is that before it can be better first you have to like to get all your stuff and dump it on the floor.

Kristen: [00:37:02] And that works too. Right.

Kronda: [00:37:06] And then you’re like wait this is chaos but you have to take it all out and look at it before you can you know compare analyze it and decide what to keep and what not to keep and so that you know like all this great talk right. But that’s the phase that I’m in right now is like it’s always darkest before the dawn but it feels like in my business everything is dumped on the floor and I’m literally spent. You know a couple of hours this afternoon just wrangling like random notes and text files on my desktop desktop that I’ve just said I’m like oh I need to write this down I’ll pop up a note and write it down not even save the file. So I was like wait what are these. You know 30 different text files I need to put these in a in the place where they belong. And so it there right now. But I’m OK with that because if I lose every day I work on or improve some process right. So even for example I talked about delegation and I listened to work the system also has a great podcast so I listened to one of their episodes about how to be better at delegation. And instead of just sort of listening that listening to that and have it go one ear and out the other. I took the process that they talked about and I created a procedure for it like this is how I’m going to delegate tasks so then I can say OK did I talk about the specific instructions.

Kronda: [00:38:30] Did I talk about the objective that I talk about you know any limiting factors. Did I tell the person who’s assigned this task how they can contact me if they have questions. So it’s called the sole method and it’s it’s those things specific scription directives limiting factors in discussions. And so that framework means that you’re going to have probably more important stuff when you first also freeze frame and they’re going to have a better understanding of what what is trying to be achieved. And so I made a process for that and that’s what I use now. Delegating like maybe they are to contractors or whatever I think what you’re talking about is price.

Kristen: [00:39:10] It really is ugly before it’s going to be pretty. And I think that’s something that you’re going to have to if you choose to accept systems as your Savior. You have to just you know know that it’s going to be like that.

Kronda: [00:39:27] Yeah. And and the trick is to figure out what’s going to give you the quickest win so that you have some kind of motivation to continue. And I think I’m really lucky in that I actually enjoy creating systems and documenting things but those are the case for most people. So I think if you’re trying to embark on this journey then figuring out what’s going to what’s the biggest pain point and what’s the quickest when that you can get from doing this is going to be the thing that motivates you and your team to be like oh OK this actually works this actually makes things better.

Kristen: [00:40:01] Let’s do more of it. Well with that last ice I just say thank you so much. It’s been such a good conversation as usual. I mean so much so I want to ask how can people find and remark on what you think.

Kronda: [00:40:21] So you can go to KARVEL digital dot com. That’s my main business and it’s client services model where we. My goal is to help companies doubled their revenue in 12 months. And so that’s sort of the business focus and then I have a personal blog at courante that comes when I read about me and what I’m up to and I don’t know I. I’m on Twitter. Carbo digital and at kerana. You can probably just google my first name and find out anything you wanna know about me public on the Internet.

Kronda: [00:40:58] So lots lots of ways to reach out and I would also add that you should sign up for around this amazing news. I get it every Sunday it’s every Sunday morning yes. So I would definitely. I just want to say thank you and we will look forward to hearing more about what your business is doing very soon.

Kronda: [00:41:21] Thanks thanks for having me.

Kristen: [00:41:28] That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest suggested guest e-mail me at hello. At uprightandbetter.com. Till next time. Grow better!

 

Episode 11 – The Laws of Physics

In today’s episode, Caleb Dean and I ponder if big business is breaking the laws of physics, what sustainable business really means, and so much more. Caleb is Founder and Managing Director of Owl, Fox & Dean. He and his team work at the intersection of organizational design, change management, and leadership development to help bold companies and individuals increase their capacity to evolve and generate value for people and place. Join me in the conversation and read the full transcript at uprightandbetter.com!

 

Kristen G.: Hi, welcome back to Up Right & Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher. Caleb is founder and managing director of Owl, Fox & Dean.

He and his team work at the intersection of organizational design, change management, and leadership development to help bold companies and individuals increase their capacity to evolve and generate value for people and place. His work blends the disciplines of systems thinking, design, business strategy, organizational development, sustainability, and storytelling.

Caleb is also the chief of staff and co-owner with his wife for their family’s 43-year-old business, Cambridge Naturals, a community health and wellness store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has a degree in environmental design from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and an MBA in sustainable systems from Presidio Graduate School. Welcome, Caleb.

Caleb, you’ve got a pretty varied background, but the thread to me seems to be sustainable systems. I’m curious, can you talk a little bit about what sustainability as implies to business systems in particular means to you?

Caleb D.: That’s a really good question because sustainability has been this thread throughout my education and career that I’ve had a really hard time defining, but almost everything I’ve done has been with the theme of or filter of sustainability. When I was in high school, I went to a community college for the last couple of years of school and I first heard the term in a human ecology course. That’s where I became, I would call an angsty advocate.

I was at that point which was like 2001, and I had, let’s see … I was a senior in high school. I was taking this course and I knew that something was off with the world. I grew up in a rural place and I just… but a very liberal and environmentally focused place. There was something … I was looking for a term for why I was frustrated with capitalism and business, and I think I latched onto this trying to figure out why humans do what they do, and how we relate to nature, and how we relate to big environmental systems.

I think I first heard the term of course in the environmental systems, and then sustainability became this thread. I studied environmental design with a focus on sustainable cities and communities in college. Then that translated into this early on career in community development and real estate development in my hometown in Western, Massachusetts. I think so many of the conferences I went to back then after graduating college in 2006, we would spend most of the time trying to define what sustainability meant and what it was.

I’ve grown to hate the term because I think so many people don’t … No one can come to a mutual understanding of what it means, yet I still use it. It’s this funny thing where I think a lot of terms are like that. I think we’re constantly looking for more and more terms like that and how to define what it is we feel really passionate about. The term itself is boring, but I think when put in context, that’s where meaning happens, that’s where we’re able to apply it.

I think sustainable systems when I went back to grad school at Bainbridge Graduate Institute which is now Presidio, they merged a couple of years ago, when I was able to apply the concepts of sustainability to systems thinking and then in turn to business, that’s when it became meaningful for me. To me, it’s really hard to define, but what it means to me is an ability for a business and it’s all of the systems that it is and exist within to continue to thrive in some way. I’ve heard the terms thrive ability. There’s all these abilities.

Kristen G.: Thrive ability. I haven’t heard that one.

Caleb D.: Thrive ability. Let’s see. Another one is like regenerative. There’s just all these things that people are trying to push, and especially in the business community. It’s something that I think … To me, it’s more of an awareness of the systems that you exist within. I think so many businesses, operate in isolation or their view of things is isolated. I think the practice of thinking about systems and their sustainability is what we’re looking for, and I think it allows us as businesses and organizations to see ourselves more holistically, and understand the ramifications of our actions.

I know this is really theoretical at this point, but that’s how I think of it. We need to understand the context in which we operate, and we can do that through the practice of systems thinking. When we put sustainability in there and all of the systems whether that’s environmental systems or economic systems, we can then create businesses that really allow for a realization of potential, and healthy communities, and healthy people and healthy systems. That’s how I would define it.

Kristen G.: That’s fascinating. I have so many follow ups to that. I’m not sure where to start, but I want to maybe start with this idea that you mentioned the holistic view and that if you were seeking as an organization sustainability or sustainable behavior, whatever that means to your organization, it almost is incumbent upon you to look at yourself in context. You said what are the systems that we exist within? I was just thinking about organizations that I know that they understand their market like the back of their hand, but they don’t necessarily see how that market intersects with other markets or how their business intersects with other businesses that are not necessarily in their profit line.

That could lead you to make near sighted  or narrow-minded vision decisions. That’s intersecting with the idea of thrive ability that so much of my work is asking the question how do we get employees to feel happy and to be healthy and to come back to work and to contribute and be fulfilled while contributing at that role. That’s one of the crux of the question, what is thrive ability?

Caleb D.: The term that I would use for that is health and wellness. If we can have healthy systems and a sense of wellness over time, that’s really what we’re looking for. I think what we often forget about is the variable of time. Everything is going to have a reaction at some point. There are externalities to everything. For everything that we do or make, at some point, it’s going to impact something else, right?

Kristen G.: Right.

Caleb D.: I think what we’re seeing now is this industrial economic system just playing out over time and having negative implications on the environment and on communities and on people’s health that I think it’s outside of most people’s day to day comprehension.

Kristen G.: Some of it is too vast.

Caleb D.: Exactly. That’s where I wonder like can we plan for these things and do we have to see it go … Not to go dark but get really bad before it gets better. These are the questions that I think about all the time, but I think to define … I think we’re just looking for health and wellness. If we can be happy and healthy and well in our day to day lives, and then we spend so much time at work, I do believe that it’s up to organizations and it’s in an organization’s best interest to provide the conditions or create the conditions that allow for people to be healthy and well.

I have the incredible fortune to be involved with my wife’s family’s business which is this 43-year-old natural products retail store in Cambridge, Mass called Cambridge Naturals. They have been around for 43 years, I would say doing it as best they can with these concepts in mind. The whole premise is community health and wellness. It started as a natural grocer back in 1973 and it’s morphed into this really complex operation where we have 24 staff, we have 16,000 skews, we have 500 people coming in a day.

This is very health and wellness lifestyle product selection. The joke I make is that no one would start this business. No one would be crazy enough to start this business as it operates. No, because we have a starting wage of $15 an hour. We pay everyone’s health 100% of their health insurance who work full-time. It seems crazy it a capitalistic model, but what it is as an organization, it’s been this thing that’s evolved over 43 years in a community with strong values.

I think some things need to evolve overtime and what happens is you set these intentions at the beginning. You can always course correct but it’s harder too. When you have these strong intentions from the beginning, you can … I don’t know. I think about in terms of what Amazon is doing having bought Whole Foods and that’s very much our industry. I think so much of where they’re headed is data to understand people.

I think there’s a scale issue there because they have to use technology and data to understand their customers because the people who are making decisions aren’t necessarily the people who are on the ground talking to customers whereas us at a smaller scale have known our customers for the last 43 years and we can have conversations with them on a day to day basis. I think health and wellness has to do with a certain type of scale and I think that’s been something that I’ve been trying to focus and work on throughout my career is like what is that right scale?

I was just at a round table with the Design Museum Boston for physically workplace wellness. It was a collection of designers and people and architects who are designing workplaces and people in HR roles and cultural roles.  The question that kept coming to my mind was there’s this small scale where people can know one another and respond really quickly. Then there’s this large scale where you have a lot more financial resources where you can do things like build meditation rooms and have these big initiatives and spaces.

I think of Google taking care of every single thing their employees need. I wonder what the right scale is for actual health and wellness. My background is in environmental design. I think about this thing I learned a long time ago which was Greek and Roman city states. They grew until they’re about 30,000 people and then whether intentionally or organically, people would move away and then started new city states. There’s something magical about this 30,000 people. I wonder what that is for business because right now, it seems like there are so many massive businesses.

Everyone wants to grow to become really big and I wonder if in the long-term our systems can support that. That’s really the question at the core of my career so far is like what is that scale, and how do we actually design things to be sustainable for people and healthy? How do we ensure that communities are healthy and in turn the environment around us is healthy?

Kristen G.: Those are such good questions. I, again, have so many things to ask about that. That question what is the healthy scale or at what scale, at what size can you sustain health and wellness and for whom? That’s a question for me is maybe your employees are healthy and well but are the people who make the products healthy and well? Are the people somewhere down the logistics supply chain well? Are the people who end up consuming it well?

Those are questions that I think you might not be able to answer if you answer to other … I’m trying to think. Answer to other pillars. If your pillar is profit and that’s your first purpose in business then you probably can’t hold in your mind the concept of health and wellness for everyone involved because something will break and you don’t necessarily want it to be your business, right?

Caleb D.: Right.

Kristen G.: That being said, this question of how big can you get is so interesting because for so many businesses that it’s incredibly hard to get to five employees and then 10 and then 30 and if you cross reference this with the rate of investing and what kind of investments are being made in businesses today and you watched what the scale is supposed to be that hockey stick scale equation, you do get these businesses that are almost too big to stand on their own feet. That may not be attainable but it also may not be … I’m hesitant to use this word, but natural.

You might actually be breaking the laws of physics in a way. those are some questions that I had at Amazon is are we breaking the laws of physics here and is something going to give at some point. What I found was that actually things give all the time, you just might not care. We see there a collision of values. It really is going to depend who you answer to and what your values are. This is so fascinating.

I wanted to come back to your note about whole foods and the data. I was listening to another podcast the other day about the rise of quants in investing, and quants as I learned are there are people that write algorithms for investments. There is this arms race in that particular sub market of people trying to leverage new forms of data and one of the examples they gave was trying to understand how long a customer stands in front of a particular product, at which part of the aisle, and at which height in the aisle.

That is what they’re trading on that they’re 3/4 of the way through the aisle at the major grocery store at the top of the aisle or top of the shelf, what does that mean is that commodity is suddenly more hot and everything else low. If we’re rigging our market that way, what are the implications there too from a sustainable system? What other producers are affected by that kind of guess work is my question? I guess it’s rhetorical although you might have ideas about it.

Caleb D.: I love it. Don’t get me wrong. I think data is really important and I think … I don’t know. I equate it to our financial systems and the different financial mechanisms and quote-unquote “products” that got us into the 2008 financial crisis. Are things moving at such a rate within very tight circles or a small part of the economy that just producers can’t keep up? Supply chains can’t keep up with that. I see it in the store all the time where we’ll bring in a really unique new product and then as they grow, we no longer have access to it because someone has bought up most of their supply and we can’t get it for a couple of months.

Then maybe they don’t exist after a year of that because they haven’t grown their internal organizations capacity to be able to withstand. You said something about laws of physics. That’s how I think about it. I wrote a blog post about this a couple of years ago, but I was listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson, and I love his show, StarTalk. It was a sci-fi episode and he had a comedian on. Someone called in or wrote in and asked a question of like, “If I wanted to blow up a planet, would the Death Star be a good way to do that?”

I loved it. The way he described it is like yeah. Planets are basically mass and energy holding that mass together. If you infuse more energy into that mass, it will blow up, or you take that energy out and it will implode. I see that happen to businesses all the time. If you get too much either business or you get too much investment and your organization can’t increase its capacity to withstand that energy… It explodes.

Likewise when you’re just running out of money and you’re running out of business and nothing is happening, you tend to just wither away and implode. That visual, I think it is physics. We live in the physical world. I think it is. The energy that it takes or the mass, it’s that balance between mass which would be, I guess in this case the organizational capacity and energy which is money and time and people’s abilities and that type of thing. I think we run into that all the time and it’s something that businesses just are constantly trying to figure out. That hockey stick growth to me, it seems kind of sick. I have a bias and that bias is small business-

Kristen G.: Same.

Caleb D.: … at local communities. I see so many startups creating these apps that I just don’t know if the world needs them. I just don’t know. I struggle with that because I love creativity and I think innovation is really important. I think we should try things out and see what’s valuable. I think there’s a human scale of things and I think we need to actually communicate with more humans to understand what those needs are and then solve those challenges.

It may not look like 10X growth over three to five years. It may look like a really great business that you run for a long time and that you should be doing because so many small business, you talked about profit which is a very important thing, many small businesses compete on profit margin, not product margin. When we look at retail, big retailers are competing on product margin. They’re doing everything they possibly can to lower or to increase product margins or sell more products to increase volume so that they compete with lower product margins so that it can increase their profit margin whereas a lot of small businesses don’t have that luxury. With bookstores, they can’t actually increase prices. I don’t know the way the industry works but I’m pretty sure you can’t increase the price of a book.

Kristen G.: If a publisher set the book, I think. It’s printed on the book.

Caleb D.: It’s printed on the book exactly. You can lower the price.

Kristen G.: That’s the only way, down.

Caleb D.: Local independent bookstores needs to compete on profit margin. When you have shareholders who aren’t intimately involved in the business, I get the sense that they don’t care and they’re not ready to make those decisions to decrease their profit for a while to be a better business. That’s part of that scale. I see lots of these small locally-owned businesses, family-owned businesses that have been competing on profit margin for a long time and that’s how they stay in business. I think that right now, it’s a really interesting time with these behemoths out there because small independent bookstores and small independent retailers like my family’s business, actually it’s almost an advantage right now because these big companies are beholding to shareholders.

They can’t compete on profit margin where smaller businesses can actually be scrappy and agile and take a lower profit for a couple of years. I mean bigger businesses can do it, it just looks differently, it looks different, and it behaves differently. It’s something that I think is important for small business owners to understand and manage overtime and actually use to their advantage.

Kristen G.: Certainly. Your point about the choices that you make, are you going to compete on … Which margin are you going to compete on and which choices are you going to make? I’ve always thought there are certain problems in organizational design and development and if we could just stop the presses for a minute maybe we could fix them.

This is a small one in the grand scheme but there’s a problem of knowledge management. Many businesses invest in systems to hold the knowledge that they create documentation, etc. The funny thing about that is that humans are fascinatingly unable to agree on a Lexicon and an information architecture.

The way that you organize your files is going to be different than the way I organize my files. If we don’t talk about it ahead of time and say, “Okay, Caleb. I’m going to put these things over here, in this theme, in this format.” Then what happens is that you have this parallel but different style of managing your information and so you get these companies, you have large software instances of their documentation management system and it’s complete crap. Everybody hates it, and nobody understands where to find something yet they’re paying 50 or 60,000 a year to maintain that system.

Everybody is frustrated, and it actually causes some in inefficiencies in the business but nobody is willing to stop and say let’s fix it. I can imagine where else we see problems like that but maybe are actually higher up the food chain in more pressing challenges or let’s say what if we wanted to make the choice that we were going to pay everybody a fair wage or that we were going to pay all healthcare for all full-time or if we wanted to make these choices, what are the trade-offs we have to make. I think those are things that we should be pressing executives and CEOs and shareholders to be curious about and questioning or at least I would want to do that.

Caleb D.: Absolutely. I think there’s … You’re touching on the … If it’s not sustainable systems so … I guess my … I tend to be someone who’s at 60,000 feet or way down in the DNA of things.

Kristen G.: One inch or 60,000. I teach this workshop around designing an authentic organization and that whole brand organization model. I think one of the things that I always start with is the Eames Power of Ten video. Do you know that video?

Caleb D.: I don’t. Tell me about it. I forget what year it came out. It was in the ‘60s I believe, ‘60s or ‘70s. It was Charles and Ray Eames, the designers. They created this video that basically … I bet you’ve seen this in elementary school. It starts with a couple having a picnic in the park on Chicago and it zooms out by the power of 10 out into, eventually to the point where you can see all of the known universe at that time.

Kristen G.: Oh, wow.

Caleb D.: Then in zooms all the way back in into the guy’s arm, into the atomic level where you’re inside a cell. That to me are all the levels that we need to think about organizations. Where I find, I tend to go… I’m someone who goes back and forth between super high level how is your business interacting with massive global systems and then what is that specific word that you can use at the right time to increase someone’s chance of understanding what you’re talking about.

I really like to bounce back and forth between systems thinking at a high level and then communication at a very, very small level because I think what you were saying before is exactly right where we don’t have a shared language or most organizations don’t have a shared language. I mean you see it every day. When there’s conflict, I think of the world as basically a series of understandings and misunderstandings.

If we can understand more than we misunderstand, the world will be a better place. I mean that’s my hypothesis. I think so much of what we see, so many challenges that we see, so many things in organizations are humans understanding other humans or misunderstanding other humans, I should say. So much of that is how we talk about things and what we call things. I mean even the word sustainability, someone probably has a much different name for it, “organization”.

Every word we use someone is going to have a different perspective on what that means to them. I see this happen so often and I saw it early on in my career where I was the youngest person in the room involved in these larger scale real estate development projects at the community level, and I’m looking at people. From what I could see were saying almost the same thing  but they were completely misunderstanding each other and then after a while lawyers were talking to lawyers and then the whole thing is falling apart.

I’m like, “What is going on here?” That’s been another thread for me which is like what can we do to communicate more effectively with one another to develop these systems of language that allow us to really have strong understanding and thus have strong systems and strong organizations that create health and wellness. Someone in a silo to create something. There’s not dialogue around this and the language is shared only with a small group of people and it doesn’t make sense to anyone else and everyone else is resentful about that.

Then it’s not used and it’s not effective. I see this all the time. It drives me mad but it also fuels me to keep doing the work that I do in the world because I’ve seen some businesses that do it really well. I recently had the chance to go out and visit Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Kristen G.: Very cool.

Caleb D.: I took one of their courses, an open book management course and they’re the real deal. It’s really, really fascinating to see because the level of engagement across the organization … I didn’t talk to all 720 employees but all of the interactions I had with people, they were really engaged. The customer service was a real thing. They do very good customer service, also really good pastrami. They are knowledgeable and engaged in the process of doing the work. I think we often forget about the work to do the work because from a purely revenue driven model, I mean a lot of companies don’t even go for profit, they just go for revenue which can be…

Kristen G.: [crosstalk 00:33:15] a number of customers or market depth or all these things.

Caleb D.: Exactly. Whatever number is going to get them the highest selling price. These guys know their … This way of managing which is open book management which they’re not the only ones who do it, but a lot of restaurants do it. Having employees understand the financial context of the business, people are a lot more engaged and there’s a shared language. What it takes is a lot of conversation. I see all these articles and blogs about kill your meetings and stuff like that.

First of all, I don’t want… flippant use of the word kill, but I also … I just think if you hate meeting, you’re doing it wrong. You’re also missing out because unless you’re building an app by yourself, launching it, letting it go to the world, you’re going to be working with other human beings.

Kristen G.: In which case, I will say about that development in a vacuum, it’s in a vacuum and then you haven’t talked to other people, so maybe it’s a piece of crap.

Caleb D.: Yeah, exactly

Kristen G.: You don’t need it or the world doesn’t need it.

Caleb D.: Exactly. I think most things of substance, you do with other human beings. A good friend, Tom Walters always said that most things of substance, we do with other human beings. What that means is like we need to engage with one another. The Zingerman’s model is really incredible because every team has this weekly huddles where they go over lots of numbers and measurements. There’s data there but it’s at a human scale. I think that’s what’s really fascinating or was fascinating to me but they’re constantly talking and they’re constantly figuring out what they need to do.

That’s something I advocate for a lot of my clients. My work has evolved from individual coaching into much more facilitation of groups and helping them design systems but really engaging them in a way that allows them to hear one another and understand one another and then take that understanding to develop systems that support the organization and support the brand and support the things they want to increase and do, and create.

I think it takes a lot of conversation. It really, really does. I just don’t know another way around it because we’re constantly misunderstanding one another. I mean I don’t know. I’m sure you and many of your listeners have been in a relationship before. We’ve all probably had these misunderstandings. We’re like how did that just happen?

That happens billions of times on a global basis every day in business. I’m like, “How do we solve that?” That’s what I think we can … Think about big systems where we can also talk about the right word at the right time and the right question. That’s something that’s really powerful.

Kristen G.: It is. It’s incredible. That concept that can actually get back to scale that what if we mindful of the scale of our communication and the rate of our communication that we sought to understand first rather than to be understood. Gosh that’s such a meditation on how can we … If you were just going to work today and thinking about how do I understand other people rather than how do I make them understand me? I wonder how your day would change.

Caleb D.: I love that. Do you know Ellen Langer?

Kristen G.: No.

Caleb D.: She teaches at Harvard and she’s written on mindfulness. I really like her approach to mindfulness. It’s not necessarily in a spiritual sense. I guess you’d probably say, “It’s not in a spiritual sense but she advocates for things like to practice mindfulness, go home after work and notice three new things about your partner. The way I try to bring that into work and the workplace, whether it’s at the store with my family’s business and with our employees or whether it’s with my clients, through Owl, Fox and Dean, it’s what’s one good question that you can ask in a meeting?

Just one good question. If you can think about that, what are you seeking to understand… because it forces … When you think about it in terms of a question, ideally that’s not leading somewhere. You start to think about the things you want to learn and that learning, I think is then contagious. I think people like to be asked questions and I think people like to share what they know and I think often I see it being reciprocated.

When someone asks a question, someone will also ask a question back. What I see often in a lot of organizations is that people are just talking at each other. They’re stating what they know and they’re posturing. There’s this scarcity mentality of I better get my thoughts out before someone gets their thoughts out. It’s this really interesting … I mean, it’s such a human thing and it’s not just in business that we experience this. It’s politics, it’s everything. I think… it’s family. It’s something that we spend so much time in business and business is such an important system globally for us that I think it’s worth really bringing these things into that system and into business and into organizations.

If everyone in the world asks a really good question one day like… how would the world change? I think about that all the time. What could we do? It just seems incredible, and it’s such a small thing. It’s such a small thing. It’s not a new app, it’s not this massive disruptive company. It’s like, “What if we all went in and tried to understand one another more?”

Kristen G.: Oh, gosh. Caleb, thank you so much. I want to just thank you again for this conversation. There’s so much that we could have dived more into, dug deeper into, but I truly appreciate both your wisdom, and your experience, and your ability to say I don’t know about things, sometimes.

Caleb D.: Thank you. This has been an absolute pleasure.

Kristen G.: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Until next time, grow better.

 

Episode 10 – Designing Businesses for Sustainability

On today’s episode, Ciara Pressler joins us from her studio in Pregame HQ! Ciara is dedicated to discovering the best business ideas & practices through the advising she provides to entrepreneurs, business leaders, and creative professionals. She has managed marketing and communications initiatives for clients from startups to the best-known brands in the world. She has been a guest expert on business, including segments for NBC, ABC, NPR, and The Huffington Post. Ciara is the author of two business/career optimization books, creator of entrepreneurial development courses, and a guest speaker for conferences, schools, and organizations. Today, we talk about designing businesses, burn out, what makes a sustainable business, and how to build a profitable, better business!

Kristen G: Hi. Welcome back to Up, Right & Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

I am so excited to have Ciara Pressler on the podcast today. She’s both a coach to me and a coach to many others in Portland both formally and informally, and I got the chance to meet her early on in February this year when I hosted a program for the Portland Startup Week events and she’s just a stellar speaker and I’m thrilled to have her on today to talk about her background in marketing and business strategy, and how she’s applied that to small business and so I want to go ahead and start there. Welcome, Ciara.

Ciara P: Thank you so much. I am excited to be on this podcast and I’ve listened to a few other episodes and already learned a lot from you too so thanks.

Kristen G: Good. I’m glad to hear that. Let’s start with your background. You have this extensive experience in marketing and business strategy, and I’m curious, why did you decide to leave the so called corporate world and start applying that knowledge to small business?

Ciara P: I’ve never been a corporate person. I’ve never thought of myself that way. I’ve always worked for small businesses other than a stint at Nordstrom in college, but I grew up with parents who are entrepreneurs and self-employed in different ways and so, I think that’s always been part of my makeup one way or another. Also, my first career was in the performing arts, which is bootstrapping at its best.

Kristen G: It is, yes.

Ciara P: Yeah, it’s in there. I started my consulting practice working with startups and organizations and creative professionals in 2009 as a result of a layoff in the wake of the recession and it really happened organically. I didn’t set out to start a business, but a lot of business landed in my lap as a result of the work I had done previously so that was the beginning.

Kristen G: That’s the best way to start, right.

Ciara P: Yeah, it really is and it’s funny because the landscape has changed so much. A lot of the things I did then to start my business from a just business mode or survival mode are the things that people are doing a lot faster now because we figured it out. Can’t think of a specific example, but we were talking this morning here at Pregame about how everyone’s a business coach now and so, when you say I have this extensive background, I don’t think of it that way. I just think I have a lot more experience than people who are doing business coaching or consulting of some sort. I spent a lot of time building up my reputation and legitimacy in my first years as a full-time consultant, but people don’t really have to do that now. They just need a really great photo shoot.

Kristen G: You’re so right. No, you’re so right and I remember my first year of business in Edify, I kept searching online for support and for help and ideas, and you can download 300 million different kinds of ebooks about marketing and this will grow your business 50 million times and it’ll be six figures in six months. It’s just like most of it is pure BS and I was listening to another podcast yesterday morning about the only way to really sustainably scale your business is to sell, right, and it’s to do the hard work that you’ve done and that experience that you’ve done. I’m curious, what are you doing now? I know you in the context of Pregame. How are you applying that experience to Pregame?

Ciara P: Yeah. I get a lot of the people who have done those courses that are sort of magic pill solutions, whether it’s an ecourse or an ebook or a conference or a coaching program. Often online programs do that because they have to keep your attention to get you to sign up. I get it. I get it. It’s good marketing, but I’ve worked with so many people at this point, so many entrepreneurs, leaders, founders, executive directors, artists, people who are leading a project or a business or a team at this point that I see patterns of how it works in the real world.

I don’t know. I think I am an optimist, or else I wouldn’t be in business for myself, but I’m a realist and I want to know what works in the real world. I like ideas and theories and trends as something to talk about, but the ones that I teach tend to be based on what is actually working and so, Pregame was my way of scaling that. I can only work with a small handful of people one on one at a time and I want to be able to work with more people so, I created Pregame as a way to be able to deliver these success patterns and what actually works to more people at once and make it more affordable for people who are just starting out.

Kristen G: Right. Exactly. You were just starting to touch on what a sustainable business is through that idea of these are not just ideas and theories, but this is practical knowledge about what can make a business sustainable and scalable so what makes a business sustainable to you in your opinion?

Ciara P: There’s this paradox, right, because the kind of person who’s going to be a founder or an entrepreneur, someone who’s creative enough and risk tolerant enough to start and run a business is going to have certain personality traits that make it more likely for them to take that leap, but those are the exact same personality traits that can work against them for what it takes to get the business to profitability and sustainability, right. You want to be creative. You want to be a good connector. You want to be a good sales person in terms of talking about your business and getting other people excited about it, but if you’re so high on the idea and the excitement of the newness and disruption and all that, it can become very boring to do the day to day work and that’s where I see people, they just get tired of their business. It’s like people who really love the act of falling in love, but they don’t want to do the long-term relationship work because …

Kristen G: It’s true.

Ciara P: Yeah, I’m like, “Sorry, this is not glamorous. Every entrepreneur I know …

Kristen G: Yeah, this is the ugly stuff.

Ciara P: Yeah. The business nextdoor to mine last week during our heatwave, the owner of that business with a team of 20 was outside scooping ice into snow cones for the neighborhood, and I was like, “This is real entrepreneurship.” She’s serving the community. She’s out there doing it herself, not just making her team do it. I get on my hands and knees and clean the floor if I have to and whether that’s a metaphor or whether it’s literal, I think you have to have the humility if you don’t have the very long and deep runway of a bank account that can hire a bunch of people to do that for you. Even then, I’m not sure it’s healthy to outsource everything because I think you need to take responsibility for what you’re creating and know the nuts and bolts of things before you hand them over to other people. All that said, the characteristics of the founder or founders and how they manage their own personality traits I think is a really big deal, bigger than I previously thought actually.

Kristen G: I think it is. You see it in a lot of startup type businesses that are maybe funded before they actually have sales or market share to show for it and you do see that founder trait show up sometimes where they’re so excited about the idea and they can sell the idea, but then when it comes down to actually building it and building a team that can really deliver, then it’s called into question sometimes.

Ciara P: Yeah. I have this radar for that personality type, right. I always find these people and it’s very obvious to me right away because I’ve worked with so many of them and because I grew up in a family with that spirit. I work well with those people because I can help them figure out where the points to how to help them get excited about smaller strategies within the business, not just the whole business concept itself. If you want to be restless about something, be restless about your marketing and your sales because that’s the thing you’re going to have to be doing every day for the rest of the life of your business.

Kristen G: Right. I was just talking to a friend and fellow business owner yesterday about how excited I am for my vacation and she said, “Is it really bad? Am I going to be a bad business owner by telling you that I am tired and it is hard to do the day to day work?” I said, “No.” Of course, I think it’s important to admit, and you and I talked about this before, burn out and all of that, that it’s important to admit this is hard work, but that is what it takes to create a sustainable business.

Ciara P: That’s why you can’t do it by yourself. I don’t have a co-founder. I think having a co-founder or a team is fantastic. Of course, there are cons to that, you’re splitting up the pie. It might take longer to make decisions. It really has to be the right match, but even if you’re going solo, you have got to have a team around you. I call it your advisors.

I have a weekly call on Thursday mornings with a mentor who I can just vent to if I need to and I have other people I can call. Luckily, my brother helps me with finances. I have another friend who has a similar business to mine so we can bounce ideas off each other where we respect each other’s opinions enough to hear what the other person is saying. Not everybody should play that role because not everybody has good advice, but whether it’s some sort of peer accountability group, an actual coach or consultant, I think you need several people that you meet with regularly in order to stay healthy.

Kristen G: I completely agree. I think now in Edify’s third year of business, I’ve finally hit that stride of I have a weekly call with my both friend and accountability partner who has a similar business on the other side of the country, and we have in place now the team members who can be that owner of different parts of the business while also working together and providing that expertise and advice to you and challenging you, too, sometimes because I think you mentioned that some of the traits that make people really good business owners and not good entrepreneurs can also trip them up. I’ve known that very well about myself.

Ciara P: Yeah. You need someone to check your BS.

Kristen G: That’s very true.

Ciara P: Who has permission to call you out on it like, “Actually, that’s not true. Actually-

Kristen G: Yes, actually that’s false, yeah.

Ciara P: Yeah, but it’s funny. I had the idea for Pregame in some form or another for years, but the last piece of the puzzle that I didn’t have yet, which I learned from my personal life is that it’s so important to have an in person peer group. I knew that from my friendships, but I think it didn’t click until in the last few years, which is even if you have these calls, you still need to have the mirror neurons of being in person with somebody for human connection and normalcy because social media is the antithesis of that. You think everybody is doing well and that you’re the only one experiencing problems because you can’t tell that people are just writing about one kind of great thing that happened in their whole week while the rest of their week was a total mess.

Kristen G: Right. Exactly. I know. I remember my first couple of months after I had quit my job to run Edify full time, and thinking, “God, everything is so fragile right now,” right. It’s like it can be good one day and really bad one day and it’s less than 12 hours later and I remember walking down the street. I think I was on Hawthorne here in Portland and I was thinking, “Oh, my God, all these businesses are potentially so fragile,” right, but yet people keep coming to work every day. I’m also an optimist-realist so I’m not saying that in a negative kind of doomsday way, but gosh, it’s really hard, right, and you have to keep coming back day after day.

Ciara P: It’s just a different kind of hard.

Kristen G: That’s true.

Ciara P: I was raised in such a way that this kind of hard suits me. It’s hard to go to a big corporation every day where you don’t really have a say in anything and you have a very tiny role to fulfill in a massive machine and that would be very frustrating to me because I like to fix things and make systems better, and I’m very much of the school of thought of like if it’s not working, change it.

Kristen G: Yes, exactly.

Ciara P: If it’s not working anymore, change it. That’s why I love small business because you can actually do that, but what the recession did for us in 2008 and 2009 is showed us that everything is volatile. If a company stock drops, they need to unload 10,000 employees to make their stock more attractive, then you’re out of a job even if you work for like a blue chip company. I think that this surge in entrepreneurship that we’re currently experiencing was fueled by the recession and people feeling uncertain no matter what kind of business they work for.

Kristen G: Right, right. Speaking of some of those challenges, but opportunities at the same time, what do you think are some of the most compelling challenges and opportunities that are facing, I call them small, but scalable businesses today?

Ciara P: So many things. Everything seems to be changing so quickly especially because of technology, but one thing that’s really standing out to me right now as a potential obstacle for businesses is idealism. It’s when you get too stuck in how you think things ought to be in a way that is not appropriate for business. I think that’s great if you’re an artist. I think that’s great if you’re at a nonprofit to a point, but too much idealism will kill your business because you still have to be able to sell the thing, right.

Kristen G: Right.

Ciara P: If you’re in a hybrid creative business, it’s a little more clear. Like if you’re a graphic designer or an interior designer or a chef, it’s very clear that you can’t only just make or design what you want everything to look like, but your flair and what you bring to the project is very important. The way that relates to even like a technology business is you might need a piece of software to do X, Y, Z, but if your audience only needs it to do X, Y or if they only want Z, that’s what your business is. So you have to be, as Steve Jobs said, “Stay humble, stay foolish,” you had to be humble and foolish enough to not let your ego get in the way of what the market wants.

Kristen G: That’s a really interesting idea that you could actually hamstring yourself by focusing too much on what you think the vision is rather than listening to what the market has to say about it.

Ciara P: Yeah, basically, around the two-year mark when I’m working with an entrepreneur, that’s when they’re ready to give up on their own idea of what their business has to be. If people, if they insist, “This is our lead product, this is the product everybody wants,” but people keep calling them for a different product …

Kristen G: Maybe pay attention.

Ciara P: Eventually, yeah, eventually, maybe make that what you lead with because that’s what gets people in the door. I’ve made that mistake, too, but I think the solution is you either package all those things together or pivot your business, which is just …

Kristen G: Yeah, yeah.

Ciara P: Startup culture way of saying, “Be smart and use common sense.”

Kristen G: Exactly, yeah, all these coded words that really mean simple things. Speaking of coded words and simple things, things that we read about all the time, things like automation and AI and the pace of change, how do you think that those things play into the day-to-day work of small upstart businesses that might not be say a venture-funded company?

Ciara P: Yeah, I think you need to think ahead a little bit. First of all, stay informed. Be in the news. Go to conferences. Go to networking events. Know what’s going on so that you know what’s being developed because if you’re in a bubble, if you’re working from home and you never leave and you’re not talking to other people in your industry, you don’t know if somebody’s already 10 steps ahead of you doing the same thing. Then think ahead about where is the development of technology taking us? Is what I’m building or what I’m providing as a service going to be automated within a few years and then, I’ll be automated out of a job? I think we have enough information on our fingertips to be able to look into the future a little bit and decide what are things that software won’t be able to do in my place in a year or two or in five years?

Kristen G: That’s a really good way of thinking about it. How do you think that you would build a business that’s both profitable and better for the community? I’ll let you decide what does better mean to you.

Ciara P: Yeah, I was thinking about this idea of better. I think a healthy business is usually better in general, but for some businesses, better is providing jobs for the community and for other ones, it’s giving back more tangibly and directly to the community like having a triple bottom line. How do you do it? I don’t know. Every business is different. Profitable means you’re making money, you’re not wasting it and digging yourself into a hole of debt, but some people can afford to do that. Listen, not everyone who starts a business is doing it to make a profit. Some people are just doing it for fun. If that is your goal to maybe establish yourself or get an idea out there, just build an app for fun, go for it, awesome. If your goal is to make money, which is the goal of most businesses, that involves the humility that we talked about and paying attention to the numbers and being honest with yourself about what’s working.

Kristen G: I completely understand. I think that honesty is a good thing to hone in on. I think oftentimes, I see with businesses that have scaled really quickly, they’re not always honest with themselves about the hidden pitfalls that they could be running up against. What is that? You mentioned runway, what is the runway that I have to make this thing happen and do I need to make a change? Do I need to pay attention to what my community, what my market is asking me? How do I as a business owner define better and how close am I to that goal?

Ciara P: I love that. I love looking at this as a spectrum between profitable and better, and you just need to decide where your dial is going to be on that spectrum, what is most important to you. If it’s all the way over on the side of better, maybe it’s a nonprofit that you want to create or a B Corp. If it’s all the way on the side of profitable, maybe it’s not even worth it to you to own the business. You just want to go make money. I’m not saying one’s better or worse than the other. I’m just saying be honest with yourself about why you’re in the game so that you don’t self-sabotage.

Kristen G: That’s such a good point. That’s really good. As we wrap up, what pieces of advice would you have for listeners who are trying to build a scalable or a profitable or a better business?

Ciara P: When I first start working with somebody, we do a kickoff session and we spend an hour talking about their whole entire professional context and their goals, and starting to build a strategy for what they want to do or a game plan as it were. An exercise I keep coming back to in that is this quadruple Venn diagram and I ask people what do you love, which they pretty much know what they want to do all the time. Then the next circle is what are you good at? Now sometimes, people want to start businesses doing something they don’t actually have any experience in and I say, “Well, then you’re going up against people who have 10 years of experience doing X, Y, Z. Does that make any sense? Will people pay you for it?” The next circle is what will people give you money for, right? The final circle, what do people want? Finding something that’s at the intersection of all four of those areas I think is a really solid start to a business model.

Kristen G: That’s a very solid start. I wish that I had done that when I started. I think maybe it would’ve helped me see some things that took me a while to see, but given that, are there any other resources or things you want to share with listeners?

Ciara P: Oh, wow. There’s so many things out there. The number one thing I want to share with people is that you are the CEO of your own career, even if you’re not the CEO of your own business and if you are seeking help or advice, it’s up to you to vet that. I think a lot of times, we make decisions in a panic about taking that overnight magic pill ecourse or working with that person who promises us success in six weeks. Real life doesn’t really work like that.

The people who are successful in those things are successful in most things because they have these traits of discipline and a good attitude and a solid business model and being humble about the work that they’re doing. Work on that, but then when you’re evaluating like who are going to be my advisors, who’s going to help me build this business, please, please, please, ask the right questions. Develop questions ahead of time that you want to know. I’m going to be offering a list of those questions on my website that people can download. Be sure to comparison shop too so you know what’s available to you.

Kristen G: Such good advice. Thank you. Speaking of websites, where can people go to find more out about you and about Pregame?

Ciara P: Pregame’s website is pregamehq.com and on social media, you can find us at that same hashtag, pregamehq and then, my personal website is ciarapressler.com.

Kristen G: Thank you so much. Ciara, it’s been wonderful talking with you. I really appreciate you and look forward to talking again soon.

Ciara P: Thanks, Kristen.

Kristen G: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Until next time, grow better.

 

Episode 9 – When You Don’t Fit the Model, Break It

Today’s episode features Mara Zepeda, the co-founder and CEO of Switchboard, a founder of Business For a Better Portland and XXcelerate Fund. She also co-wrote the Zebra Manifesto which gave birth to the Zebras Unite movement and soon, the first DazzleCon. Don’t miss this episode, especially if you don’t buy into the “scale for scaling’s sake” zeitgeist! Listen along as Mara educates us about what’s really going on in the gender gap in startup funding, what many women are doing about it, and how she’s broken that model to allow her startup to succeed.

Kristen: Hi. Welcome back to Up Right and Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up into the right and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

Mara is the co-founder and CEO of Switchboard, which she bootstrapped by designing hundreds of calligraphy tattoos through her studio, Neither Snow. Along the way, she gave a TEDx talk about how the ethos of Oregon, that a quality over quantity and long-term thinking over short-term gains embodies the future we wish to see. She’s also a founder of Business for a Better Portland, a Chamber of Commerce for Progressive Business Owners and XXcelerate Fund, a revolving debt fund for women, trans and non-binary Oregon founders. She co-wrote The Zebra Manifesto, which gave birth to The Zebras Unite Movement and soon, the first Dazzlecon. I met Mara in 2013 when I essentially tried to figure out where in the Portland startup machine she would be and kept going there, eventually meeting her during office hours at the Multnomah Whiskey Library. It was quite possibly one of the most important meetings I’ve ever had because my life is constantly improved, inspired and altered by being near what Mara works on.

There’s so much I could say about Mara because her background is so fascinating, intense and filled with moments of contemplation, action and compassion. For now, I want to talk about connecting her work and the thread that links it all. Join me in welcoming Mara Zepeda.

Mara, I don’t know even where to begin because there’s so much that you’re involved with and so much that you have started with, but I guess we can start in just one place. Maybe that place could be Sex and Startups. First question for you there is why did you feel the need to write this piece? Then, I’ve got a follow-up for you.

Mara: Sure. Well, thank you for having me. Sex and Startups, we wrote in February of 2016. I wrote it about a year and a half ago. It was co-written by my dear friend and another startup founder, Jenn Brandel. I think we felt as though we were really being saturated in this metaphor, and metaphor had meaning. The metaphor that we were talking about and that we are talking about started this notion, and you know, I’m using the masculine and feminine here to describe broad archetypes and gender more than I am sex. You know, this notion that essentially, startups have this vernacular, so acceleration, exits, seed funding, up and to the right. Everything is oriented around hyper-growth and this really fast and unsustainable trajectory. As Jenn and I were thinking about the companies that we wanted to build and the change that we wanted to see in the world, it because very clear that we were after a different metaphor. It was something that felt slower growth, sustainable, Instead of disrupting systems, we were really excited to repair them, so I worked with education and Jenn works in journalism.

We just felt as though the existing startup culture wasn’t really describing the types of companies that we wanted to build and that there wasn’t even a tolerance for it. When you have an entire culture that’s set up for hyper-growth, what that means is you’re excluding a lot of founders with different ideas and different solutions that they’re trying to solve.

We wrote this manifesto called Sex and Startups. Basically, what it argued was that instead of thinking about this ejaculatory up into the right model, if we want to create more sustainable thoughtful culture, we have to come up with different metaphors. We have to invest in different types of cultures. That was the genesis of that piece. Since then, what happened was over the year since we’ve published it, we’ve heard from hundreds and hundreds of founders and investors and people in the startup community saying, “What you’re describing is exactly what I am, and it’s who I want to be. It’s the type of company I want to build.”

We unintentionally created this movement. The subsequent piece that we just published called Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break attempted to be another layer of synthesis in describing how we could create a more ethical, inclusive and sustainable culture that could give birth to and help these different types of companies thrive.

Kristen: I love it. I just love the language shift from disrupting and breaking and re-imagining the system. I think it does align with a masculine, at least in the English language and American cultural viewpoint, it does align more masculine than feminine. It’s such a more violent of a perspective. If you take a step back and you look at the way that the startup world works, to me, being a little bit on the outside but a little bit on the inside due to the companies that I work for… It feels a little violent, and it feels rushed and terse. It doesn’t take into account the kinds of cultures that we’re talking about here and in Sex and Startups.

The vernacular that I think you’re trying to put onto it is a completely different way of thinking about it. I don’t know that there’s a lot of people thinking about it in those ways, other than those of us who are trying to build zebra companies or maybe people have also been familiar with the B-corp companies, but not all B-corps would be zebras in my view. Not all zebras would be B-corps, perhaps. Maybe more zebras would be B-corps. Not sure.

What’s been the feedback that you’ve gotten or not so much the feedback, I guess, because you mentioned you’ve gotten so much good response? What resistance have you met with, if any?

Mara: I think a lot of people, I should first say that many of these ideas were deeply informed by the work of Jennifer Armbrust, so for those of you out there who haven’t heard of her work, she has a really beautiful creative mornings talk called The Feminine Economy. She has something called Feminist Business School. She’s been a dear mentor and coach of mine. It was Jen that first started to speak about and introduce me to these concepts. The masculine economy is one that has linear growth, that’s based on individualism and competition and this hierarchical myth of the meritocracy. Then, you had this other, the feminine economy, which is about interdependence, collaboration, generosity, resourcefulness, sustainability, care.

Jen was really the first person that started to speak about business in this way that really resonated with me.

I think in terms of the response, when it comes to the resistance, I think there’s a misconception that we are saying. It’s an either, or. We’re saying either it has to be a masculine economy or a feminine economy. Part of the work that all of us have to do is to recognize that both can and should have a place to exist. There’s a balance of the two. There’s like this yin yang marriage of the both of them and that we will not have a diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem without being able to create a culture that we want.

I think there’s a misconception that what we’re saying is we want to get rid of the masculine economy. That’s craziness because that’s like saying we want to eradicate capitalism. There’s no sense in trying to dismantle that model, but I think what we’re seeing more and more is the recognition that there is space in the world to accommodate a different type, different types of business models, different types of businesses.

In doing that, in opening ourselves up to a diversity of opinion in that way, we then make our entrepreneurial ecosystem more diverse. Diversity actually comes from respecting and valuing the values that these founders have and saying to them, “You deserve a movement of your own.” The world is big enough to accommodate it. It’s a both/and, it’s not an either/or. I think it’s too easy to page it in the antagonistic term. I think really, what it’s about is just creating a more diverse ecosystem.

Kristen: I want to come back to ecosystem in a little bit, but as we’ve all read in the news in the past six months or so, I mean you could really say the past 10 years, but really in the past six months, it seems like company after company is coming forward or somebody or some woman is coming forward from many companies. What it’s caused is this seemingly abrupt tide of mea culpas from the mostly male venture capitalist community to say, “I’ve done these things. I’m so sorry. I won’t do them again in the future.” Well, how is Sex and Startups and Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break related and intertwined to that behavior that we’re seeing in VC right now?

Mara: I think one thing that was interesting, so after we wrote Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break, we then announced this conference that we’re going to be hosting in Portland, November 15th through 17th. For founders that are interested in joining us, this will be a small conference of about 150 founders and funders to start to co-create a vernacular around this movement. You can learn more about that on the website that we’ll put in the show notes. I think it’s something I think about every day because it really comes down to power and who has it and if they’re sharing it and if they deserve it. Those are the questions that I tend to ask myself every day. You can have as many apologies as possible and as many mea culpas as possible or diversity trainings, but the fundamental fact of the situation is that women receive … Now, the most recent numbers are something like 10% of venture capital. That’s on a very high-end. Traditionally, it’s been around 4%, and 4% of bank loans.

If money is power, then essentially, power is being withheld from women and people of color. There are many things we can do to skirt this issue to say we’ll create a more inclusive ecosystem. We’ll have these equity quotas, but it actually requires funding women and funding people of color. It requires fund managers to be women and people of color. That tippy-top layer of power for under-represented founders and people to have access to that tippy-top layer of decision-making power is really the holy grail.

It’s the place that nobody wants to talk about, but it’s the place where the solution will be born. I find that it’s really frustrating because everything else is essentially men making decisions for women and people of color and lording… It remains an imbalanced power structure when men are assigned to “fix the problem.” It’s a very different dynamic when women and people of color are trusted enough to create the solutions that they need.

I think it just requires some pretty nuanced discernment to understand the difference between someone who is coming in as Mr. Fix-it. That hero role is one that is very appealing to the ego versus creating systemic change where it’s accommodating solutions by making space for those solutions to be created by the people who are facing the problems to begin with. That’s a much scarier proposition but something that I think we just have to, we can no longer avoid.

Kristen: Right. Well, it’s scary but also risky, right? It’s a risky proposition to say, “I’m going to gamble on the idea that I can make a difference in this huge, vast system.” You know, I think of Astrid’s work with Sfera, right? I mean the kinds of things that Sfera is trying to do, as well as Switchboard and many other zebra companies are such systemic work that people who are happy to stay in and have made their money in quick wins, and which, again, very, very masculine, maybe ejaculatory quick-wins are the easier way to go, right?

If you, for me at least, reading through Wired or Fast Company or GeekWire or TechCrunch, it’s always like, “Oh, the exit was three to five, maybe seven years after the company started,” when so many of the zebra companies that we know are seven to ten years in before they’re really seeing results because they’re willing to put in the sweat equity to do that.

Mara: Mm-hmm (affirmative), completely. Yes, we actually reached out to the reporter of the New York Times story that aggregated those women’s experiences of sexual harassment. Jenn and I both come from a reporter background, and we tried to say as clearly as possible, “Look. The news requires you to have these very viral stories,” so you have a viral story of six women or how ever many, six very brave women coming forward with their stories. We really encourage the Times to do a much more thoughtful investigation of an anonymized survey of women founders across the country that would share their experiences, not only around sexual harassment, which of course is a problem, but also around discrimination and any number or any other number of challenges that they face in the startup world, and that you would then have an aggregated data set that would tell a very different story of the problem. We could actually would help to inform so much, so much around funding and around business models and around the new type of culture that we needed.

I’m not sure what they’re planning to do with that, but unfortunately, I think that we can get lost in anecdotal details around the culture, and what we really need is a much more holistic 30,000-foot view of what women and people of color across the country are experiencing from a discrimination standpoint. Not so that we can call out individual VCs and finger-wag and bemoan the state of affairs, but so that when we think about the movement that has to come in to create something, that we can do it from an informed place and from a place of strength and unity. All of what I’ve just described around grassroots organizing long-form journalism, deep investigative reporting, reaching out to sources across the country, creating systemic change. Everything I’ve just described is completely antithetical to where we are right now as a country, in terms of meeting immediate gratification.

Kristen: You mean fake news wouldn’t help us there?

Mara: Yes, exactly.

Kristen: Yes, right.

Mara: Just the cadence of what you’re describing, absolutely. It’s not. It’s not sexy. Nothing about creating an alternative movement to something is sexy. Nothing about movements, historically, has been sexy. It’s just been back-breaking work over decades to try to create cultural change, so absolutely. I think you’re so spot-on that the cadence couldn’t be more stark in this time, between what you are able to vomit out in a tweet versus the type of life’s commitment that you have to make to actually creating systemic meaningful change.

Kristen: Right, right. It is. I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole, but when I see often male founders, CEOs up on stages talking about their commitment to diversity and inclusion or male VC’s apologies and their new found commitment to funding, or they’re going to actually start an impact fund, which I find very interesting, and we talked a little bit about that in my interview with Stephen green, that impact funding, that funding women and people of color is not impact funding. It’s actually just founding and funding companies that make money, but that, that is such a difference perspective. There’s sitting up stages and writing, writing articles and posts but haven’t actually committed to the life-long work that it will take to move their firm in a different direction or to move their company in a different direction or to really examine their hiring processes that a diversity training is not going to solve that problem, right?

Mara: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kristen: You know, this could be naïve and certainly in a generalist case, but I just could imagine an economy made out of zebra companies. You wouldn’t have to have unconscious bias training. My hope at least is that you wouldn’t have to, but perhaps we’ll see that in 20 or 30 years.

One of the medium articles that you wrote, not super recently but this is the one about how the sausage of everything that is amazing about you and that you’ve done is made included 14 important lessons that you’ve learned. Although I love many of them, one of my favorites on that list is every museum is a temple to what is possible. I’m certainly biased because I have a background in museums and in thinking through human behavior as a collecting tool and a cultural tool. Can you talk a little bit more about this? Maybe I’m treading on a thread that’s too light, but how is it connected to the work you do with Switchboard?

Mara: I guess apart from just growing up in museums, I would say it’s been eye-opening to create a company and recognize the artifacts that we create that are not considered artifacts by any type of museum standards, but are still … There’s a material culture to companies, I suppose is the best way of putting it.

Kristen: There is, right.

Mara: If you were to take a step back and think of a company as a museum in some ways, you know, I’m constantly thinking, and I will be the first to admit that I could do a better job on so many different levels, but this is at least to say that it’s in the back of my mind. You know, what is the experience that your employees have when they first start? You know, the work that we’ve done together has been so integral in that. That is similar to when a museum is welcoming you. How are you onboarded into physical space is very similar to how are you onboarded into your company? What are the images that they’re surrounded by? I’ve always been very intentional about having flowers delivered every other week, depending or every week, depending how we’re doing.

Kristen: How we’re feeling.

Mara: Just to have that sense of seasons passing, so when the peonies are blooming, that is a signal to me that we’re in the height of the sales season. Then, when we have cottonwoods delivered, that signals something else. There are visual signals. I think also what the founders revere and we’ve seen time and again that just having our team feel that they have as much freedom and autonomy as possible, and so certainly when you’re thinking of that museum design experiences, wanting to be as the best ones, obviously, are the ones in which they’re such a playful experience of exploration and this encouragement to discover what it is that we are truly interested in, without being forced to be guided through one nook and cranny or another. Yes, I worked at the … The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is where the Mütter Museum is, which is-

Kristen: What an interesting museum to work at.

Mara: Yes, and so that was right downstairs from some work that I was doing there in Philly many years ago. Yes, so just to be informed by physical spaces and then to think of companies as, yes, creating these cultures. That was something that I didn’t entirely understand but that I’m so grateful to have learned, is that a company is very much a culture. People say company culture, and that never really resonated with me abstractly, but when I think about it more in terms of something like museum design, that’s where the cultural experience becomes a lot more real.

Kristen: I’m feeling like there’s something I need to write on this because this part of our conversation is especially fascinating to be, because I hadn’t been thinking about it this way, but that concept of material culture is pertinent because it is just … Even, it could be digital material too, right? The logos that you transition through, maybe the first one that you started with, and I’m struck. I’ve been in the Switchboard office, and there’s the shrimp logo. I know there’s a story behind that, and there are the books that you share and the notebooks that you share, and all of these things that come together to form a company and the knowledge that is created is material culture, right? The other thing that I’m thinking about as I listened to you talk about that is the intentionality and the care with which you’re thinking about these things, and that I wonder if that’s not indicative of a zebra company, right, of a company that is paying attention to the way in which it interacts with and within the world, right?

Mara: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kristen: You’re paying attention to how you create things and how you align objects, both digital and physical and metaphorical to create an organization in the world.

Mara: For sure, yes. Some reading that I would recommend on that is Ari Weinzweig who’s the founder of Zingerman’s Deli, who will hopefully be coming to our conference, Dazzlecon, is really my mentor in this way. He has a series of restaurants and roadhouses in Ann Arbor and has written a phenomenal series of business books. Really, the only ones I recommend is called the Lapsed Anarchist’s Guide To Being A Better Leader, Managing Ourselves, Building a Great Business and Beliefs in Business.

He talks about this process of anytime he’s about to come up with a new idea, he’ll sit down and write a visioning statement. He will go through the senses, so what’s the sensory experience that the customer is about to have? They walk into the roadhouse, and immediately, they smell coffee, incredibly roasted coffee. They’re greeted by someone at the cash register who is friendly and smiles and makes eye contact. He will just go through this incredibly detailed … You know, the napkins that they’re touching are soft and cotton and heavy. He will go through this descriptive process of the material culture that he’s thinking about, which is the experience.

The hospitality industry actually has so much to teach tech in this way because they are much like museums. They’re thinking so very much about the experiential aspect of the process. Absolutely, I think, and to your point about zebra companies thinking in this way, in startup culture, this is an ananthema, right, because you’re just trying to crush it. You buy a ping pong table. You source a keg. You print out t-shirts in China, and the disposability is inherent in an exit strategy. I remember joking with a friend of mine. One of the startup companies in Portland had all of these t-shirts printed. Then, they folded. You just see, and they brought them all to the local homeless shelter. You would just see people in Downtown Portland –

Kristen: Oh my gosh, how interesting.

Mara: With these t-shirts printed in China about VC-backed company that had totally had gone belly-up. What an interesting-

Kristen: An interesting investment in the community.

Mara: Exactly like, “Okay, this is how it’s all going to end-up.” Yes, when we’re talking about when to buy, where we buy snacks across the street from them, and I’m looking at it. It’s the local vegan grocer, and so we buy our snacks from the vegan grocer. That takes an additional 10 minutes out of my week or our team member’s week versus buying it on something like Amazon. A company is made of so many of those micro-moments that …

Kristen: Right, decisions moments.

Mara: For sure, zebra founders are just thinking about it in a really different way.

Kristen: I love it. I feel like I could continue this mental, just exercises on what is a company like this? As we wrap up, what is something that you might say to, let’s just say, a tech founder who might not currently be building a zebra company but is curious about it? How would they enter into that world and try to become more like a zebra company?

Mara: I think for me, I would say it’s just being able to find heroes who are doing work in a really different way. Then, figuring out what it is that they’ve done and just using other founders and other industries as a guidepost. One of your guests, Jill Nelson really taught me this lesson as well when we’re talking about just the care that can go into a company. She has an entire … I forget what it’s called, but it’s basically just this entire corner of their office that’s-

Kristen: Oh, yes. The gifting station?

Mara: The gifting station.

Kristen: Something like that.

Mara: Yes, exactly. I would not know how to do anything that I am fumbling along doing without mentors and people to emulate across industries. I mean they run the gamut from artists to authors to intellectuals to other startup founders. I wouldn’t even call it mentorship, so I would just say I think it’s almost impossible to learn information abstractly and to be brave about seeking out the people who are signaling that they’re doing work that’s resonant with you and establishing authentic relationships with them and just being able to observe them and to apprentice yourself to them as much as possible, has been something that’s been so profound for me. I was lucky enough to be accepted to Portland Incubator Experiment, our company was, and just being in the orbit of Rick Turoczy and all of the community-building that he does in such a quiet, thoughtful, selfless way had a huge impact on the culture of our company. That’s one example.

I suppose that’s what I would say to begin with. Then, for the books, they’re really starting with books like Ari’s book. There’s a woman that I’ve recently become very enamored with whose name is Mary Parker Follett, F-O-L-L-E-T-T. She has this book called The Creative Experience that I’m reading right now. I’ll send you some information, but she was a turn-of-the-century … She was writing in the 1920’s about management and business, and what she has to say is just blowing my mind.

Kristen: It must be very … I just can imagine, if you’re enamored of it, it must be very anti-tailorist.

Mara: Yes, I’ve never read anything like it. Peter Drucker called her the prophet of management. She’s a woman that I have never come across in my life. She really argues for this notion of power isn’t something that’s given. It’s not something that’s taken or given. It’s just it’s like this exponential increase of capacity that all of us should be helping each other to fulfill. What she has to say about power and organizational management is just really something.

Kristen: Wow. I’ll have to take a look, and we’ll link it on the show notes. Well, is there anything else that you’d like to leave us with?

Mara: No. I mean gosh, it’s just such an honor to speak with you. I think that all of us are on the same page, right, of just wanting to create a more humane and ethical and inclusive space, and so to be able to be alive together, to all do that work is something that’s such an honor. I just feel grateful for the community in Portland and for the work that you’re doing and for the people that I’ve learned from every day. Very excited to connect with more folks, thanks to your podcast.

Kristen: Well, thank you so much, Mara. I can’t say how happy I am enough that you are on the podcast. I think that this is probably the most explicit interview that really speaks to the name of the podcast, Up Right and Better. You used the phrase earlier, up and to the right, and I was very inspired by our conversations, and many others with people that I want to emulate too, to try to help us find a way to build these companies that are profitable and are good for the companies and the people in them and the employees and the environment all around, so that they’re up, right and better, not just profitable. Thank you for your work in that as well.

That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, e-mail me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Until next time, grow better.

 

Episode 8 – Visualize this: Your strategy, better

Today’s guest is Nitya Wakhlu, a personal friend and a professional collaborator of mine. Nitya is the founder at Drawbridge Innovations, where she specializes in using visual thinking and experiential learning to create whole-brain experiences that support group learning, innovation, and change. Nitya has a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering and an MBA focused on Human Resources and Industrial Relations. Nitya’s best known for her work as a graphic recorder and visual facilitator, and she brings over eight years of experience working with corporate, government, and nonprofit groups from across North America, India, Africa, and Europe. On the podcast today, we’re going to talk about the difference between graphic recording and facilitation, putting a more human lens on human resources, and learning how to start your graphic recording process!

Kristen G.: Welcome back to Upright and Better. The podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host Kristen Gallagher.

Today’s guest is Nitya Wakhlu, a personal friend and a professional collaborator of mine. I was trying to remember how we met, so I looked up the first email I sent her, and I realized that I emailed her after seeing her at a festival in downtown Portland. She had a table there with the library and was hosting a visual thinking exercise, which we’re actually going to talk about.

Let me just tell you a little bit about her. Nitya Wakhlu is the founder at Drawbridge Innovations where she specializes in using visual thinking and experiential learning to create whole-brain experiences that support group learning, innovation, and change. Nitya has a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering and an MBA focused on Human Resources and Industrial Relations. Nitya’s best known for her work as a graphic recorder and visual facilitator, and she brings over eight years of experience working with corporate, government, and nonprofit groups from across North America, India, Africa, and Europe. I’m so thrilled to have Nitya on the podcast today.

Welcome Nitya. I’m so glad you’re on the podcast today. I’m really excited to have you here because we have worked together in the past, and I think we’ve known each other, gosh, at least two-and-a-half years now, right?

Nitya Wakhlu: Yeah, that sounds about right, and thank you so much for having me on your podcast Kristen. I am a huge fan of the show and really, it’s a privilege to be here.

Kristen G.: I’m so excited. I’m glad to hear that. So I want to dive into something that I don’t even know the biggest difference between. Maybe you can talk to us a little bit about the work you do in graphic facilitation and graphic recording, and how are they different, and why do you use those things?

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely, and yeah, thank you for asking. This is something that a lot of people want to know more about, but also are not sure of the distinction. I’d love to talk about that right now.

Very often I get hired to do work with clients as a graphic recorder. As a graphic recorder, what I do is I go to meetings of all kinds, so that could be a strategic visioning workshop, or brainstorming session, or a board meeting even. And what I do in my role there is listen very deeply to what’s being said, and distill the key information from that huge conversation. Then I use words and pictures to capture that information visually in real time.

Typically, what it looks like is I have a few large 4×8 sheets of paper up on the wall, and I’m really focused on capturing the key ideas and the key insights and using words and pictures to put that up on the charts. That is an example of what graphic recording looks like.

Kristen G.: Okay. I think that’s a fascinating tool, and I can see that being very useful for board meetings with nonprofits, with committees, but also with tech companies and startups that are maybe having trouble accessing their deeper thoughts about the brand or where the product is going. Have you done that kind of work before?

Nitya Wakhlu: Yeah, I think graphic recording is a tool that is applicable and very useful, you know right across the spectrum. I’ve worked with groups of three people in a startup in their early stages of brainstorming. I’ve often worked at conferences with 300 people in the room. It’s a very useful tool in a wide range of scenarios, and it does a couple of things.

First of all, as a graphic recorder, we bring a quality of very deep listening into the room. And when we do that it makes sure that every voice in the room feels heard and validated. And I think that when people realize that there’s someone really listening to them deeply, it helps them feel more engaged. It helps them feel more collaborative, and then that really changes the shape of the interaction in the room. That’s something that I love about graphics recording.

Then of course the fact that we use words and pictures is a very deeply integrative process, so you have both sides of the brain being stimulated. It also helps people tap into a realm of imagination and of visionary thinking that they couldn’t have with more traditional processes. Of course, once you’re done with the meeting, the visual shots are an excellent artifact for you to take back with you to not only remember what happened, but also share with the rest of the organization.

That was a little bit about graphic recording.

Kristen G.: That’s helpful, but how is it different from graphic facilitation?

Nitya Wakhlu: Great question. As a graphic recorder, you show up into the room on the day of the event, and you might be a little involved before the event to understand what’s happening, but it’s mainly focused on the day of the meeting or the days of the meeting. But as a graphic facilitator, my role begins much more upstream. In this role, I will work with a client to understand their needs. Very often the call comes to me when people kind of know what they want but aren’t fully sure. So I will kind of go in, and then have a conversation with them and truly understand what their needs are, what the challenges are, and what their objectives are. Then I design a facilitative engagement and actually lead the facilitation.

What makes graphic facilitation unique compared with other methodologies you might have seen or used, is that we use a lot of visual tools in our work. For example, if I’m going into a strategic visioning session, I might, as a facilitator, come in with a pre-drawn history of what the organization looked like over the last 10 years, including the peaks and valleys. I might come in with a set of empathy maps or blank visual worksheets and templates for all the participants to draw in and fill out. I might bring in visual card decks. So basically as a facilitator, you’re in charge of designing the process, facilitating the process using a lot of creative visual tools, and it is your job to make sure that the group reaches it’s desired outcomes.

Kristen G.: Can you share an example, of course client names redacted, of you doing graphic facilitation?

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely. Recently, a large organization that I work with gave me a call, and they had an interesting challenge. They were at a point where it was a group of about 150 people, employees in that group, and they wanted to explore reevaluating the strategic vision for that group over the next 10 years. I don’t know what’s your experience been with groups that do this because what I’ve noticed is that traditionally leaders will go out into a resort or a spa or something like that for five days and close themselves there, and work on totally redesigning the vision. Then coming back to the organization and basically handing it to them. Is that something you’ve noticed that happens quite a bit?

Kristen G.: I’ve definitely seen that, and it’s challenging when you have a group that has done that, and they feel really excited and proud about it because you want to let them down easy, but you also want to tell them … And I’m sure you’ll speak to this, but I always want to say, this is most likely not going to be as successful in adoption from your own employees or your stakeholders because it was not co-created, and they might not buy into it.

Nitya Wakhlu: Exactly. Thankfully the group that called me, the leaders had the vision and foresight to tell me that they didn’t want … I think literally there was, we don’t want a poster to put on the wall. We don’t want something that we created and looks nice, and we give to the rest of the organization. We want something that each one of our 150 employees has helped co-create and helped shape. Once everyone has their fingerprints on the vision, that’s when we know that we’ll get ownership, and we’ll get buy-in. Then it becomes something that we can all align towards, and we can all strive to.

That was sort of the brief that they came to me with, and I loved that experience. The way I approached it was we brought in a team of three other graphic facilitators in addition to me. Then broke this group of 150 up into smaller teams and had really deep conversations helping each of these small hubs imagine what they wanted the future of their organization to look like and really getting granular in asking them to visualize that and give us some really good information about what the future looked like.

Imagine a room of 150 people generating all these images for what the vision is, then of course, we took these images and all these ideas through a set of filtering processes and distilled them and polished them up. But at the end of this, we had a beautiful visual map that was a reflection of this co-creation, a reflection of this really collaborative process, and we ended up with a vision that people recognized, people owned, and now it’s with each employee. They look at it every day, and think it’s a beautiful north star for them to shoot towards. That was certainly something that I really enjoyed working on. It was also great leverage of the visual tools that I was speaking of.

Kristen G.: Definitely. One thing that is striking me about graphic facilitation is that it is such a human-centered process.

Nitya Wakhlu: It is.

Kristen G.: You and I have worked together on a couple of different human-centered design things, but I want to connect it … Before we dive into to… because I do want to talk about stuff we’ve done together because it’s fun.

Nitya Wakhlu: Right.

Kristen G.: I want to also connect this, and I’m maybe even thinking there’s a little bit of irony in that your background is in HR and organizational development, which ironically it’s not a traditionally human-centered field.

Nitya Wakhlu: I know.

Kristen G.: But you’re using graphic facilitation as a human-centered methodology to bring groups together, to move them forward, to galvanize them to action. Can you talk a little bit about that? Have you seen that irony? Is that just my cynicism?

Nitya Wakhlu: No it’s not yours. I wish it was, the cynicism, but honestly-

Kristen G.: Me too.

Nitya Wakhlu: It’s the sad reflection of a lot of the current state. People come into graphic facilitation with all sorts of backgrounds. I think each one of these paths have their own unique advantages and disadvantages. I’ve seen people come in from illustration, and people come in from IT, being a business analyst, etc. I have noticed a few things, since I come at this work from a background in HR and OD. I have noticed that … You know one of my core principles, and I know that both of us shared this, is that the learner is the person that we put in the center of everything we do, or the employee, or the participant.

Every process that we bring to the table or every intervention that we design is focused on acknowledging that the wisdom already exists in the room. Our role as facilitators is not to come in and tell people what to do, but it’s to work as a crucible or to hold a space for that inherent wisdom to really emerge and reveal itself. I think that’s something that we both share, and I have noticed that traditionally HR is much more of, hey, this is what we think your problem is. This is what the solution is, and here, this is what we’re telling you to do.

So it’s much more of a diagnostic model, and I think the shift … I am seeing it shift a little more now, more recently to a more humble and to a more dialogic model were you invite people to have conversations. You really listen to what people are saying, and you don’t go in with any sort of a preconceived answer. You sort of go in with a good process, and you go in with big ears and trust I think.

I think I do see that evolution happening recently, but unfortunately, I feel like traditionally HR’s been much more of a prescriptive sort of a model, and that is incredibly ironic, for sure.

Kristen G.: Yeah, it is. I love what you said, that your job is to be a crucible and to hold space. I’ve never thought of myself as a crucible, but I so resonate with that, or your words resonate with me about holding space for this to happen because one of the things that I’ve always believed about my work, and also, I think I see it in your work too, is that people have the answer. They can get to it. It’s just that there is a lot of flotsam, a lot of just I’m kind of in the way. And our job is often to help them peel it apart, and that the juxtaposition you made with kind of being a crucible and holding space, versus a diagnostic model makes me think of almost the sick care.

Nitya Wakhlu: Exactly.

Kristen G.: You know we don’t have healthcare in this country, we have sick care. I think people can have, especially a lot of executives and founders I know have a pretty visceral reaction to human resources, and I think if you press them, they might think of it as sick care. But I think what you’re doing is trying to bring an organization to that well-care. You know, how can we build trust with each other? How can we lean on one another and have a dialogue that is authentic to this organization. I love that. That’s amazing.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely. I think this is something I learned from you, which is going in with a spirit of humble inquiry really changes the outcomes, and sometimes it is difficult when you talk to clients, and they want a really prescriptive agenda or session design for the day, so sometimes it can get a little challenging to say, hey I’m going to go in prepared and trust the process, and I might throw away my agenda during the day. That happens to me very often because I believe in just being in service of the group.

But I found that that’s the most effective methodology, and very often, I’ve worked with clients maybe have had hosted discussions for example. Again, we had about 150 employees in the room, where the brief was, let’s find out from them how we might shift organizational culture. What can we do as employees to make that shift happen. And we’ve taken these 150 people through a series of hosted café-style conversations. I think the stuff that’s emerged from these discussions, I think it’s powerful, and it’s something that could not have emerged from hiring consultants to give you a report or something.

Kristen G.: A report, yeah.

Nitya Wakhlu: Exactly, so yeah, that’s been pretty powerful I’ve noticed.

Kristen G.: It is. We’ll come back to that in a little bit because I want to ask you about some of your big goals, but I do want to connect to some of the work that we’ve done. We’ve worked on some human-centered design workshops, and one we’ve done for actually HR practitioners, and I’m curious. What are your thoughts about those workshops? Do you think that they were useful for the participants? How might we build on those kinds of things?

Nitya Wakhlu: I think so. Human-centered design is a process of again putting your customer in the center, and for HR groups of course, that’s most likely the employee. Again, I think to a point that we were talking about in the past, one ironic thing that I have noticed within organizations is that while a lot of the innovation teams use human-centered design, the HR teams hardly ever do that. A few organizations where I have seen the HR teams leverage human-centered design, I think it’s been transformative for them and a huge breakthrough in the way they work. So I definitely think that this is a methodology that is not only helpful for HR, but I think it’s essential in the way they work and in the work they do.

Very recently, for example, I was invited with a team to help them redesign their non-compensation reward system. This was a taskforce that was put together, and they were told to … You know for example, very often, organizations as a reward, as a recognition, they give people like a little certificate or like a little gift card. This company wanted to really find out what is a reward for employees that is actually meaningful, and that really makes a difference.

So this task force went out and did some research and listened to employees. Then came back, and then we went through a two-day process that I helped them facilitate, where they shared the insights from the employees, and then we used a bunch of visual tools. We did empathy mapping. We did a lot of ideation, a lot of live visualization, and came to a really robust place of this non-compensation reward system that was something that really made a difference to their employees.

That’s an example of how using human-centered design can help shape HR systems and processes, and that could be onboarding. It could be redesigning managerial training programs. It could be compensation, even performance management. So I certainly think, not only the methodology, but even the basic mindset of human-centered design, which is whatever I do, I’m going to put my employee front and center, and I’m going to design something tested with that employee, and then help that feedback shape my design.

Kristen G.: Right. I think that’s incredibly powerful, the mindset of human-centered design. I actually recently taught a couple of versions of the work that we did together to learning practitioners, to other instructional designers.

Nitya Wakhlu: That’s interesting.

Kristen G.: It was interesting because I kind of thought that it wouldn’t be new, but both of those workshops were flooded with people, which is flattering, but it was such a shift. Even for people whose whole business and way of working is supposed to be centered on the learner. Trying to help them see the value of creating a persona, and understanding, and actually going out and interviewing that person, and trying to develop empathy for their environment and their situation so that you could better design a solution that you could then prototype and test, that was a very big shift for a lot of people. I think one of the bigger things too, not just the persona and the empathy, but the testing mindset, this prototyping mindset.

I don’t know how I would survive without that mindset. I mean that’s how I run my client projects. That’s how I do pro bono work, all of it. I think I even do it in my own personal life. It doesn’t make sense anymore to go away for a month, six months, 12 months, and kind of seclude yourself and produce something that’s very shiny and beautiful, but then at the end doesn’t work because you didn’t test it out and try it out.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I love visual tools is because I think visualizing an idea or visualizing a problem or a complex solution or a complex current state, is a really powerful tool to bring something to life. For example, if I wanted to build a low-fidelity prototype for an idea, I think instead of trying to go to people and giving them a PowerPoint deck or trying to explain my way into their minds, I think creating a visual really helps people get it faster and align around it quicker, and get feedback, which is why I love consumer journey maps. I love sketching, and I think whiteboarding as a tool to get into that really quick iterative prototyping and testing work out.

Kristen G.: Definitely, well this brings me to a different question, which is what are the big goals that you have for the organizations that you work with? What do you hope from kind of a 50,000 foot standpoint that they take away from their work with you?

Nitya Wakhlu: From a 50,000 foot standpoint, I think what I would love for every organization I work with is to see and embrace the fact that there’s another way to do things. There’s another way to run your meetings. There’s a new way to determine your strategy, to redesign your processes, come up with new ideas, get your employees into the room, create a space where the employees can shine, use visual tools to make complex ideas simple. Then I think by doing that, my clients and organizations will see that work becomes much more productive because you have people aligning around ideas quicker. You have people making decisions faster. You have ideas living for much longer than they normally would. So work not only becomes more productive, but it becomes more fun. And I think we can all use a little bit of that within organizations.

Kristen G.: I completely agree. A little bit more fun and a little less taking yourself so seriously.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely.

Kristen G.: As we go, what are some ways that somebody could use some of these techniques without being as talented as you are. Obviously, they could hire you, but what might you give to someone who wants to try this in their basement or their backyard.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely. Also, just to put this in context, I’d say that I have absolutely no background in art. I went to engineering school and business school, then worked with G.E. Then ran my own business, so I don’t come from an artistic background. So I tell my clients that if I can do it, anyone can. It’s about 10% talent and 90% practice. And interestingly Kristen, a lot of my clients are now inviting me in to teach them the basics of visual thinking, so that they might start using this visual language within their organizations.

To someone who wants to get started, the first thing I would do is tell them to just practice. One of the things, a best practices to put up, a flip chart in your office or your room, or your workspace. Start thinking of the ideas that you hear of very often in your work. That could be innovation or growth or human-centered design, and start practicing very simple icons that help you depict these ideas. That’s one good way to get started.

The second thing that I tell people is that if you have an internal meeting, or you know three or four people brainstorming around the room, and if you’re the person who’s drawing and taking notes in your notebook. Instead of doing that, stand up and start using a flip chart. That’s a good way to bring in visual thinking into your meetings in a low-risk way.

The third thing Kristen, is that I don’t think people even need to draw if they don’t want to. For example, a lot of the tools that I use aren’t even about me drawing. I bring in a lot of visual templates, visual frameworks that people can write into. I use a lot of photo cards. I use a lot of collage images from magazines. Get creative in the ways in which you can leverage visuals and that doesn’t even have to be about drawing at all.

Kristen G.: Yeah, I love that. I think those are really good tools. And we can probably link to some of them in the podcast notes.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely.

Kristen G.: Where can people find more information about you?

Nitya Wakhlu: My business is Drawbridge Innovations. You can email me at Nitya@drawingbridges.com, and we’ll put that in the show notes. Also, visit my website and listen to a five minute Ignite talk that I did about graphic recording. That’s www.drawingbridges.com. That’s a good place to find me and hit me up in case of any questions or anything you want to know about this.

Kristen G.: Definitely. We’ll link to all of that, and Nitya I just want to say thank you so much. I’m so happy to have you on the podcast and can’t wait to have you on again.

Nitya Wakhlu: Thank you so much Kristen. It’s a great privilege again to talk to you but also to all your listeners and to your tribe. If there’s one thing that I want to make sure that people know about the world of graphics recording and graphic facilitation, it’s about ideas, not art. So don’t let the names fool you. It’s about making complex ideas simple. Anyone can do it, so I invite all your listeners to go ahead and give it a shot themselves.

Kristen G.: Definitely. Thank you again. I appreciate it.

Nitya Wakhlu: Thank you so much. Have a great day Kristen.

Kristen G.: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Until next time, grow better.

Email: nitya@drawingbridges.com

Website: www.drawingbridges.com

Much gratitude to David Sibbet, who has given our field a rich shared lens and language to talk about our work.

Resources I recommend:

 

Episode 7 – On Cheating, Money, and Important Truths About Growth

On Episode 7 of Up Right & Better, I talk with Stephen Green, one of my favorite Portlanders and startup thinkers. He’s an economist, entrepreneur & general do-gooder. A Portland native and recovering banker and venture capitalist, he is a champion of the little gal/guy, creator of the event PitchBlack and the Oregon Public House. He spends his days as Community Manger for Townsquared, a tech startup connecting small businesses with the knowledge they need to succeed and grow. On this episode, we’ll be talking about funding, why you might not need money, how to cheat, and more – join us!

Kristen G: Hi, welcome back to Upright and Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

Today’s guest is Stephen Green. I got to meet Stephen during the first year I lived in Portland when I was an AmeriCorps member at Micro Enterprise Services, Oregon. Since then, he’s gone on to make so many stunning contributions to our community, and I am so honored to talk with him today.

Stephen Green is an economist, entrepreneur, and general do-gooder, a Portland native and a recovering banker and venture capitalist, he’s a champion of the little guy and the little gal. He’s also the creator of the Pitch Black event that highlights Portland’s black founders and also one of the founding board members of the nation’s first nonprofit brew pub, Oregon Public House. He spends his days as community manager for Townsquared, a tech startup connecting small businesses with the knowledge they need to succeed and grow.

I also recently learned that Townsquared is a hugely diverse company. He was awarded 2016’s small business advocate of the year by Portland Business Journal and was also highlighted as one of Portland’s top 40 under 40 in 2015. When not making spreadsheets or helping founders, you will find him with his family in Portland’s Woodlawn neighborhood. Help me welcome, Stephen Green. Good morning, Stephen. How are you doing?

Stephen Green: I am doing fabulous. How about yourself?

Kristen G: I’m doing really good. I’ve actually gotten a lot of work done this morning, which isn’t always true for my morning, so I’m quite pleased. All right, so I want to go ahead and dive right in. You have a really long history of being in finance, of advising small businesses, of actually starting a couple of things yourself, and you recently gave a talk at TEDxPortland, that’s your hashtag, #cheatmore, and you gave a really wonderful story about a construction contractor that you’d worked with. I want to say, did you work with him 10 years ago?

Stephen Green: Yeah, it was about 10 years ago.

Kristen G: 10 years ago, so maybe you can talk a little bit about that, but why are you drawn to this space personally?

Stephen Green: First and foremost, I think it’s because I’m the son of two entrepreneurs. As a child, I was able to see both of my parents start their own separate businesses. My mom had a tech company in the 90s. My father had a really successful human resources consulting firm where he worked with tech companies in the Portland area, mainly. And so, being up close to it, I could see them benefit and them grow, and the power of having other people say yes to ideas that you bake up on your kitchen table.

Kristen G: That’s amazing. I did not know that about your parents. That’s funny, it’s close to home. A human resources consulting company and a tech company. What type of work was your mom doing?

Stephen Green: She does information systems. She worked at Tectronics for 20 years.

Kristen G: Oh, wow.

Stephen Green: My dad worked at Intel for 20, 25 years, and then my mom started a tech company in the insurance space back in the early, early 90s that she ended up exiting from a few years after they started it. I’ve grown up seeing strong people of color doing amazing things, and so I think it’s only natural that I spend my career supporting those folks around me in Portland.

Kristen G: Definitely. I want to talk a little bit about cheat more, for those listeners who haven’t watched your talk, which is amazing and you should definitely take… I think it was 13 minutes, 13, 14 minutes to take a listen to it, but can you talk about what cheat more means and how it supports businesses here?

Stephen Green: Yeah. The idea of cheat more is really to break up the dynamic and the conversation around what it means to support small businesses, and generally, that conversation is always a binary conversation of either you’re buying local or you’re a douche bag and you’re supporting some national business. The idea of cheating really comes from what my buddy Neil Blassingame who’s a body builder does. He works really, really hard, and he’s lifting all the time, but he has cheat days, and so just like it’s okay to have those when you’re working towards a goal, it’s okay to cheat on the big guys. I understand why people shop at companies like Starbucks and Walmart and Amazon, and it’s not about telling them to stop. It’s about them understanding the power that they have in their community when they have cheat days or cheat weeks or cheat months or whatever as opposed to them feeling some sort of shame because they went and bought some items on Amazon.

My talk is really… you know, quantifies what happens in local communities when you do decide to cheat and what a big deal it is when you spend your money in local communities and the direct benefits to the people in the community that connect all the way to your own personal health. Communities that have more small businesses actually have higher health outcomes than communities that have fewer small businesses.

Kristen G: Wow. I did not know that before your talk about the health outcomes, which is a really amazing statistic. I love how your thoughts around cheating on the big guys actually contributes to your work in finance, almost like the most tangible work that I can think of that you’ve done. There’s the financing you’ve done where you’ve made sure that companies had millions of dollars of funding that they needed, but this is the $5, this is the $3 in the local community that really does add up. It kind of leads me to my next question that does everybody need financing or when should you not go look for financing and can you do it from a community perspective?

Stephen Green: Yeah. I think firms are always seeking financing, and one way to think about financing is a loan or equity. Another form of financing is revenue. I think as a business owner, you should always be seeking to figure out who your customer base is, do they want to buy your product, what are they willing to pay for your product, how much does your product cost you to deliver to your customers? When i think about providing financing, it’s from those different sources. It doesn’t have to always be a bank or your home equity line of credit or doing a kickstarter campaign.

You should be seeking the optimum ways to figure out how you can produce revenues at all times. I think we’re living in a day and age where it’s the easiest time ever to get access to capital if you have a business, for better or worse. Venture capital has grown here in Oregon, but so has crowd funding. Crowd funding nationally is now at 39 billion dollars as of 2016. Venture capital nationally is only at 31 billion dollars.

Kristen G: Oh, wow.

Stephen Green: When you look at the landscape as a business owner, you’ve never had more opportunities than now to gain funding. When you go and you look at the data for why businesses go out of business, access to capital is the number five reason why businesses go out of business. And so far too often I see entrepreneurs going and looking for the next round of funding or the next loan or the next side investor, but they aren’t thinking about am I serving my market? Am I pricing things appropriately? What are my margins? Am I solving a problem out there? When you’re always seeking funding, sometimes you prolong the inevitable when you don’t have a really, really sharp, proper business plan.

Kristen G: That’s such a good thought because the name of this podcast, Upright and Better, we’re trying to move up and to the right from a profit perspective and a revenue perspective, but we want to move up to the right and better. We want to be a better type of company, a better organization in our communities, and I think you’re speaking to that, that you can’t just be looking for the money and that’s your business plan. Have you seen some businesses that have succeeded without seeking either crowd funding or VC or seed capital, but they’ve done it on their own merits and their business plan?

Stephen Green: Yeah. I think probably one of the best examples here in Portland is the digital media company Digital Trends. They’re approximately a 40 million dollar a year company that hasn’t raised any equity financing. They’ve really always been keenly focused on who their customer base is, who their competition is, and how do they do things better and cheaper over time? How do they diversify their product mix over time to a changing market? Before they just had Digital Trends as a platform where people were engaging, but recently they’ve added another standalone brand called The Manual, which still targets a similar demographic, but caters to them to talk about other products. There’s a perfect example right in our backyard of a bootstrap company that’s always been keenly focused on their customer segment and how to do that better and cheaper over time.

Kristen G: Why do you think that’s not talked about so much? I think the talk in the startup space especially in Portland, last year there was some big conversation about the difficulty of getting venture capital and seed capital in the Portland area for Portland companies, and there’s a history of this, of a conversation between Silicon Valley and Silicon Forest, but why do you think there’s not much of a conversation on the type of road that you say Digital Trends is doing?

Stephen Green: One, it’s not sexy. It’s not a really super great story, I don’t think, potentially, for readers to go and read about two guys who put something together and failed a bunch and over the years slowly created this juggernaut that’s doing so well. I think it’s better to tell the story of the company that raised 12 million dollars and they got six employees and now they’re going to have 50 employees.

But part of what’s happening is these stories go and feed into what people think of this, what it means to be a startup founder and that you have to have really fast growth. Unfortunately, when you look at what it means to grow a business, uncontrolled growth is the actual number three killer of businesses.

It’s even worse for you than access to capital, and so when you read about all these stories in the paper of these high growth companies and you never read about boot strappers or the people that are really being agile and managing growth and controlling their brand, it leads people to have this false positive idea that well, the focus is really fast growth and that’s what I need to point to. That gets a lot of founders in trouble.

Kristen G: I think you’re right. Not only, well, I don’t think you’re right. I know you’re right. The data says that, but I think people do have this image in their mind of the fast company or the wired. They want to be on the front cover, but it’s so ironic to me because I’m not building a tech company, but I want my company to be sustainable and to be able to look back and say, for example, this morning, I got told no from a potential customer, and that’s tough, and you’re going to get that more times than you’re going to get a yes, but eventually you’re going to grow.

For example, Edify’s already seeing double its first year in revenue. It takes time. I don’t know, that’s the story that I want to see. I think that’s the story that’s going to keep our community afloat actually when we see the trouble in other communities that are startup funded or venture capital funded over time. When a business approaches you for financing or advice on financing, what do you say to them? What do you ask them first?

Stephen Green: Generally, the first question is always what do you want versus what do you need in financing, and the answer to that question will tell me a lot about where the founder or founders are at with the company. If they go and say, “Well, I don’t know the difference,” that tells me a lot versus, “Oh, well to get to the next milepost, we need $18,000, but right now we’re fundraising for $60,000 because that’ll allow us to do these two other things that we really want to do.” Financing, getting capital into your business is gasoline, and so you should use gasoline to propel you forward to the next spot, but oftentimes, a lot of founders don’t have a plan of where the next spot is, and they’re just chasing to put more gas in the gas tank as opposed to they don’t know where the car’s leading to, and that’s difficult because that’s where, if you don’t know what road you’re headed, then any road will do I think the saying is.

I’m always looking for business owners that have a plan, and they’re working their plan. I sit down and talk with them about financing, they should be using financing as a tool to propel them down their plan. Oftentimes, we leave the financing conversation and go and talk about, “Well, what’s the plan? How would you spend this money? How do you know it’s going to cost $50,000 for a marketing plan and not $32,000?”

Kristen G: What research have you done? This isn’t a perfect analogy, but it reminds me a little bit about college loans. I remember being in school and I was about to graduate and a freshman came in and she was kind of getting settled, and we were talking about her money for some reason, about financing, and she said that she got the entire tuition in student loans. At that time, that college was $40,000 a year. That was just her first year, and right there she’s already over, at that time, she was over the national average for four years of college debt. She was a freshman, so she didn’t know necessarily where she wanted to go, but I think about her often because I think, I wonder did she find her way? Did she find a place that would make sense for her and that would ultimately pay it back?

I guess it’s not a perfect analogy because I think sometimes you can do that uncontrolled growth and you can get that money and you don’t always have to prove that you’re using it wisely. You kind of get out of jail free card if your startup fails. It seems like it’s a badge of honor that “I’ve had a couple of failed startups, I’ve taken money. I had a couple of exits”, but you still didn’t produce anything at the end of the day, so not a perfect analogy, but something that I think about based on what you’re saying.

So, I want to hear some of the successes and the horror stories of financing, so what are some of your favorite stories? I would love to hear construction contractor story again just because I love it, but I think everybody else would too.

Stephen Green: The construction story that I give in my talk is about a contractor, Mr. Hartley, and I use a different name in the talk, but when I met him, he was homeless, living in his van in Nevada. He’s a Portland native, and his dream was to come back to Portland with his head held high. He was an amazing lath and plaster professional, but had fallen on hard times. As with a lot of folks, he knew a trade, he was good at something, but knew little to nothing about running a business.

So, when we connected, he had an opportunity to work on one floor of one building in the South Waterfront Towers that were being built here in Portland, and if he was able to complete that, then he’d be able to get the remaining other 20 floors of the building. It would become very quickly a very large project. The only thing standing in his way was the $20,000 he needed to pay for the materials to do that first floor.

You can imagine being a banker. At the time I was working at Albina Community Bank, and starting off with the fact of someone coming in for a loan who’s homeless, you can imagine what the initial application looked like. I think in hearing his story and finding out that he was a talented person and looking into some other resources here in town, we were able to put together a pretty compelling argument for why he was the kind of person that you want to take a risk on. Some other partners came to bear that were going to help on capacity building for him to really be able to manage a project, but in the end of the day, he was able to get the money he needed to do that project.

Kristen G: That’s amazing.

Stephen Green: And ultimately did get the other 20 floors.

Kristen G: I love that story so much because it feels to me like one of the original ways to build your business, to show that I am somebody you can trust and I will return this. I’ve got to believe that he had to employ people, he had to buy materials, so he’s putting those resources back into the community, and especially because it was a loan from the community bank, I think it’s so impactful to me. On the flip side though, what about some success stories from a VC perspective or an angel perspective? I know that you’ve been on that side of the table too.

Stephen Green: I think one of the things that I learned in my foray in the venture capital world is it’s a really, really, really myopic tool, and I spent probably 90% of my time explaining to people what the tool was, and more importantly, what it wasn’t. Sometimes a big win was helping people understand that they don’t need venture capital because I think one of the things you alluded to in one of your earlier comments is that fundraising is kind of this badge of honor, and it’s kind of a cub scout badge. I’ve done my fundraise, but I’m always seeking to make more informed founders in the city, and if I can help someone understand that they don’t need VC funding, or they don’t need a loan, or they don’t need an investor and they can really get to that next milepost without it, then that’s a big win.

When i think of successes, what comes to mind is Tyrone Poole, the founder of NoAppFee, a technology platform here that helps people with barriers to housing find appropriate rental housing. When I met Tyrone 12 years ago, he was actually living in a homeless shelter, and to see him build two companies in the past 12 years, raise financing, win Pitch Black, go on to win the Challenge Cup in Washington DC and raise more than a million dollars for his company is phenomenal. Phenomenal.

I think he epitomizes everything that the venture world should be supporting, someone who’s dealt with adversity, someone who’s got a crazy ability to manage risk and navigate tough spaces and also has probably an industry leading advantage as far as being able to relate to his clients because he was one of his clients. I think one of the keys to his success is that he’s faced barriers to housing. He knows what it’s like to get turned down by 10 different places when you’re trying to rent an apartment.

Kristen G: And have spent all that money on the application fee.

Stephen Green: Yes. I’ve got to think that folks sitting in a dorm room in Stanford University aren’t thinking about how to solve that problem because they’ve never had to experience it generally.

Kristen G: Definitely generally, but I’ve got to think that you’re right because look at the companies that are getting the press and that are getting the money that we see thrown around. It’s not necessarily the NoAppFees of the world, right? I think that’s, we were having this conversation before we started recording about diversity and access to capital too, but I think one thing you just said, which was there are people that the capital, venture capital world should be funding, and they’re people who can manage risk. They’re people who have seen that adversity. They’re people who have actually experienced what their customer is interested in or has problems with and it’s not just that they can’t get their food delivered at the time that they want.

Stephen Green: Good point. I think the other way to think about it as well is that being able to raise venture capital equity is not the litmus for building a successful business either. Less than 1% of businesses in the United States will ever raise venture capital. It’s a really myopic tool. I hate seeing entrepreneurs leave the table of not raising venture capital and correlating that to “I don’t have a successful business.”

Kristen G: Exactly.

Stephen Green: Because in fact, they just may be a bad fit for that tool, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree for capital.

Kristen G: There are better ways, different ways to build the business.

Stephen Green: Yep. Conversely, to play alongside with you, the numbers bear out. Companies that have diverse founders return higher shareholder returns than ones that have more monolithic founder teams. If I’m a VC or I’m an investor who’s strictly about making money, you would invest in teams that have women or people of color or immigrants as founders because that’s how you’d make a crap load of money, right?

Kristen G: Right.

Stephen Green: If you’re not doing it for the moral side of it and you’re not doing it to be a capitalistic pig and make a ton of money, what you’re left with is you’re doing what you’re comfortable with. I think how do we break out of that mold of doing what we’re comfortable with and really seeking to be truly disruptive beyond using the word disruptive and using the word innovative and really using evidence and data in these stories to build a case for why when you do invest in a women owned company, when you do invest in a company owned by a veteran, it’s an impact investment, that it actually is about making returns on your bottom line.

Kristen G: Right. I think that could be a whole other episode. I would love to talk more about that. It would actually be pretty cool to get you and maybe Arlan and a couple of other people on the podcast to talk about that, so maybe we’ll have to come back to that. As the last question I want to ask you, maybe a big one, but how does taking funding from any source impact your company’s culture?

Stephen Green: That’s a good one. That’s a pretty high level question because when I think about taking money, I think of the multiple levels of what that means. That could be a bank loan. That could be a successful kick starter. That could be grandma wrote a check for $20,000. At the end of the day, all of those things point to there’s either one person or hundreds of people that believe in the idea of what you’re trying to do. I think that in and of itself is a good thing, and now it’s on you as a founder team and the employees to deliver on that better and cheaper over time.

Kristen G: Definitely.

Stephen Green: If you’re doing that without having a plan, then ultimately it could lead to the inevitable of you closing down and you just put more gas into a tank of a car that’s not moving. The point is how do you be a really informed founder and make sure that whatever gas you have in that tank, you’re using it to its fullest and getting you to where you understand that you need to go, right? Because sometimes you have conversations with founders and they come to the realization of, “Wow, if I can’t raise 1.8 million dollars and not a penny less, this just doesn’t move forward.” Sometimes pulling the plug is a really great option, right?

Kristen G: Right.

Stephen Green: Know when to say when. Fail fast. I think that really is part of the mantra that Gary V would talk about, of failing fast and knowing when you’re at failure. Far too often, people don’t, they don’t have a plan and they don’t know what failure looks like and they found some dentist in Lake Oswego that’s willing to give them another $200,000 of runway, but that’s not necessarily smart money, and they don’t have a market that’s really been validated. They don’t have a growing customer base, but they’ve found yet another person that’s willing to put some gas in the tank, but the car’s really not going anywhere.

When I think about getting access to capital and getting financing, it’s got to be about propelling you forward and what’s the next milepost that this money’s going to get you to, and if you don’t have a plan to be able to articulate that, you shouldn’t be getting a home equity line of credit. You shouldn’t be asking grandma for another $300,000 or whatever. You got to be able to answer those questions not only for yourself, but for your investors, and for your employees. If you’re going to be a good leader, you got to be able to articulate the path forward. What’s the mission, vision, values, and where we’re going?

Kristen G: You can’t see it, but I’m just shaking my head because I agree with all of that so much, and definitely the employee piece. I was just thinking about a person that I am acquainted with in Portland who was an employee at a remote company that was kind of winding down, and from the story she shared with me, she actually was hired in the middle of them winding down, which feels like one of the most irresponsible things you could do to a new employee, to a person. At the end of the day if you know your runway is coming up and you know this is not a good business to pour more gas into, don’t hire more people. Don’t hurt your employees like that, and that’s on the negative end of it, but I think you’re so right that it ends up being how are you going to lead the ship through this journey. I want to just say thank you. I love talking to you all the time that we get to talk and this has just been really helpful. Are there any last thoughts that you want to share with us?

Stephen Green: No. I hope the work that I’m really committed to is about changing the experiences for underrepresented populations, and I feel like Portland’s at a point where we feel like diversity, equity, inclusion is important, but it’s not necessarily urgent, and you do the things that are urgent. You talk about the things that are important.

So, I think when it comes to supporting underrepresented founders, people have to be committed to doing something, not just talking about something, not just changing their mission statement, and every little bit helps. Having that focus on changing experiences that people have as opposed to just sprinkling some equity on it.

Those are the thousands of little things that I like doing. That’s why I do events like Pitch Black because it’s really, you got to do something to shake up people’s perceptions. Once you can get people to shift their perceptions, it’s amazing how much quicker they will act on things because their perception has been challenged and shifted.

Kristen G: Right, exactly. Well, Stephen, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate it. I look forward to talking to you again.

Stephen Green: Thank you for having me.

Kristen G: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Until next time, grow better.

Episode 6 – Experience is Everything

On Episode 6 of Up Right & Better, Emily Griffith, the Ambassador of Awesome at FINE, a brand agency for the digital age. Based in the Portland office, she works fast and goes creatively big, empowering people to create their best version of great, while maintaining grace under fire. Curating a bonafide Awesome office culture is a juggling act of operations, studio management, hospitality, event planning, and communications, and no day is ever the same. Emily knows first impressions are lasting, so she makes them meaningful for both staff and clients, taking FINE’s “bring friends” credo and running barefoot with it.

Kristen G: Hi, Welcome back to Up Right and Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

My guest today is Emily Griffith, an absolutely awesome person, whom you’ll see why very soon. Emily is the Ambassador of Awesome at FINE, a brand agency for the digital age. Based in the Portland office, she works fast and goes creatively big, empowering people to create their best version of great, while maintaining grace under fire. Curating a bonafide Awesome office culture is a juggling act of operations, studio management, hospitality, event planning, and communications, and no day is ever the same. Emily knows first impressions are lasting, so she makes them meaningful for both staff and clients, taking FINE’s “bring friends” credo and running barefoot with it. Thanks for joining us, Emily.

So I’d love to dive in, and first off I want to say thank you for being on the podcast, but I’m really excited to talk to you about this. Mainly because, so far, you are pretty much the first person I’ve met who geeks out about onboarding as much as I do. So, for those of us who may not know, would you share a little bit about your background and how you came to be at FINE, now six years ago?

Emily Griffith: Of course, and thanks for having me, of course, Kristen. So, my background leading up to FINE, I had been going to art school and graduated, and was working at a cookie shop called Two Tarts Bakery, as well as a restaurant that’s blown up over the last few years called Olympia Provisions. I was working at the bakery and the restaurant, and the FINE’s, were Two Tarts cookie enthusiasts, and visited the bakery frequently with their kiddos, and we just got to know them from the hospitality side of things. Just like, “Hey! How’s it going? What’s up? What can I get for you today?” kind of situation.

Then we just got to talking about what I was doing at the bakery, which was a mix of marketing, managing, as well as actual farmer’s market managing. So a lot of face time with all kinds of people from all walks of life and you know, pimpin’  little amazing cookies and helping with the design and display of those cookies, and all things bakery. All things cookies. And Kim said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I feel like I want you to come and work for FINE.” “Okay.” Luckily, the owner of Two Tarts is good friends with FINE so that all went okay.

Kristen G: Yeah, it wasn’t like they were stealing you.

Emily Griffith: No, it was a natural evolution. From graduating from college to just going into the industry that I had been going to school for, which is advertising and marketing and a little bit of fashion here and there. And they had a studio management role part-time available at FINE so I just popped into that role and was doing a little bit of hospitality in three different spaces every day. So going to Two Tarts, going to FINE, and then going to OP and juggling that. But we weren’t really sure what path I would take once I was in FINE so started doing reception and hospitality from the agency side of things, and then we started to grow.

The company started having more people move up from San Francisco to Portland and planning to have families and we started to outgrow the house that we were in on NW 23rd. So at that time, I went ahead and went full-time and bid farewell to OP and Two Tarts and began my life as the Ambassador of Awesome of FINE.

Kristen G: I love the job title. I love it.

Emily Griffith: Thank you. It was a casual job title for a long time bestowed upon me by our digital creative director Tsilli Pines. She just went, “Hey, Emily’s our Ambassador of Awesome. She’s doing the awesome things. Rock ‘n roll.” And then it started to really stick and become fertilized. The Ambassador of Awesome roll  is fun, it’s an open title but it allows me to explore all kind of avenues when it comes to our cultural management within the office. I facilitate our in-office concierge duties, and admin duties and onboarding, especially … Just making sure our team has all the stuff they need to be their best selves and make their best work. I act as the facilitator of the heart of our culture and the people side of operations.

Kristen G: That’s wonderful. I’m sure that you know what’s going on at FINE all the time and that you just have this pulse that is probably difficult to find in any other role, which makes you, in my view, like the overseer in a way. Just making sure that people are able to do their best work; I like that you said that earlier, that this is not just about okay, you’ve got a computer and you know how to do what we hired you to do, but realizing that people are multidimensional, multifaceted individuals and they need… That there’s a difference in working in a place that’s got beautiful light and lush green plants and spaces to collaborate and spaces to be alone, and a nice kitchen and things like that versus a cubicle farm, but there’s actually a difference in the kind of work and the kind of people that we become in those spaces.

Emily Griffith: Yeah, for sure. Acting as the connective tissue I think between all of the departments and the leadership and management and bringing in new people, just making sure everybody has a really nice use of communication and facilitating support in really any arena, people need. It’s kind of where I find my special little spot.

Kristen G: Yes. I’m going to talk a little bit about that spot because I have worked for a web design agency. I know that FINE does more than just web but I happen to meet a lot of people; some friends, some acquaintances, through that agency work, and I don’t know that I know of any other agencies who have invested in onboarding quite the way or to the extent that FINE has. So why do you think FINE has invested so much thought and so much heart into onboarding?

Emily Griffith: I think the main thing is that onboarding is going to be key to people’s experience and if you don’t understand the aspects of working out of place or working at the agency, if you just kind of rush into it or are trapped in the cubicle farm as you said, anxiety is going to increase and you’re not going to have your best work or be your best work or be your best self. You might even not even be yourself when you’re at work and I think the big thing for us is we have these credos; “bring friends” and “be human,” “be awesome” and we really do believe those.

I feel like you should be yourself when you’re here and yourself when you’re at home and as we ease you into your workload making sure that you know that we’re supporting you and you have that, I guess acceptance, as you start in the new space, I think that really allows people to just come in with a little more confidence and realize that they can ask questions and be curious or feel clueless for the first couple weeks.

And they know that we know, it’s all going to be okay and it’s all going to work out, so I think that’s why we invest a lot into the onboarding as well as … Onboarding, it’s not just selfless as our HR director says. It’s really important to make people productive as soon as possible and it can take years to get people fully ramped up to where they’re experts in their field and so taking the steps early on to make sure that we’re here to help them grow and learn and succeed is just incredibly important.

Kristen G: I think that that is so important, is realizing that there’s two motivations around onboarding and that, yes, it is about employee experience and allowing them to be comfortable and to work out of that comfort, but it’s also about the business’s bottom line. And I think not everybody realizes that but there is actually a cost associated with not onboarding people and that there’s sort of a down-the-line effect of that. I don’t know if that’s something that you’ve seen or thought about.

Emily Griffith: Oh, definitely thought about and we see it off and on but it’s like the great, awesome, wonderful employees. That’s really, really hard so the onboarding … It’s really hard because the industry’s competitive and there’s a lot of wonderful people out there, it’s like you have to stand out among the rest and I think we really pride ourselves in being authentic and kind and generous. So when we find someone great, the onboarding helps us make sure that we don’t have to do it as often in that role.

If an employee has a bad experience right off the bat or they feel clueless or they don’t understand how they fit into the mix, then they’re not going to last very long and they have to start all over again. We may have lost out on someone amazing just because there was no support to make sure that their role had the best of the best tools available for success, I guess. Yes. I just want to make sure they’re successful personally and professionally. I feel like they can be at FINE and just … The onboarding is the first step.

Kristen G: So you’ve talked a little bit about FINE’s culture and this credo idea that I think is wonderful. I like the concept of a credo rather than maybe specific values. Credo kind of calls to mind like a manifesto or, “This is how we live life.” Whereas I think values have this connotation of being … You can put them up on the posters, around the office and they’re not necessarily integrated into the way that you think about things. But how do you manage to introduce new employees to that culture, into that way of thinking?

Emily Griffith: I think it begins with the interview right off the bat. When we interview people, we have just our normal attitudes and we treat them with respect and hospitality and engage them in conversation right off the bat. Some of our interviews don’t even feel like a formal interview. It’s more like a coffee chat or a couple people getting together over lunch. We try to keep it casual so people don’t stress out or bug out, because sometimes that allows people not to be themselves. Then from there, we do a few rounds with them, they get to meet a lot of people, a few of the key folks you’ll be working with and see how they deal with group dynamics and all of that kind of stuff.

And then once they come in, we kick off our onboarding with a bunch of different people and they are all represent different facets of FINE and different departments, and then there’s different checklists of things to go over. So the onboarding takes about… All of the tools and orientations and all that stuff, it’s about two weeks and then they get people fully ramped up in maybe two to three months. We move a little bit slower maybe than other people but I think that is what helps people immerse into the culture so they’re not forced into  “Here, huge project!” or crazy, intense meetings right off the bat. Instead, they shadow, they get to ask questions, they get to participate as equals and all kinds of things and get to know people’s names. I think that’s important.

They get to just start to see, “Oh, that person really knows a lot about this,” or that person is really, really nice, and talks a lot about this. I’m going to ask them some more questions.” So they get to … I call it the sponge period. During that sponge period, they get to soak up all the knowledge around them, and all the personalities, and all the dynamics and all the stuff going in. I think that makes for a really genuine integration into our culture. They can identify where they fit in and not in a click-ey way. They can fit in, like “Oh, yeah. Okay, cool. I’m comfortable here.” Like, “Yes. I know what’s going on.” And that way, when they get kicked off on their first project, they know who to go to.

Kristen G: Or they’ve figured out some of the norms and probably this person likes to communicate versus that person.

Emily Griffith: Exactly. At the sponge time it’s really valuable, while low-risk learning and yes, it provides an opportunity for all the things and then accompanied with the tool onboarding and the process onboarding, the people side of the onboarding is when they just get to have lunch with some of the employees. So we try to facilitate organic pairings with employees.

Kristen G: You know, wine, cheese an employee.

Emily Griffith: Yes, that’s funny, yes. Like, “Oh, this person is a designer so let’s pair them up with a couple developers and a project director to go to lunch with, and talking about their experiences and what not.” Something we do that we’ve talked about before is the coffee talks where FINE supports those organic friendships and get-to-know-you communities by giving everybody a little bit of a budget to take the new employee out for coffee, or tea, or ice cream, whatever you want. And to take about a half an hour and go on a walk, and just talk about anything but work with your coworkers.

So we try to do a few of those over the first couple weeks and then over the first couple months. You might get to have coffee and ice cream with anything  from 5 to 10 people depending on how that all goes down, and then you have a little bit more of a connection. So I think that’s a cool part of our onboarding, is that it’s not like high-stress and go, go, go. It’s nice and easy, and then here we go. Then you’re ready to hit the start line, you know?

Kristen G: Right, right. I love that. Yes. I think if I’ve been onboarded that way, maybe I would’ve … Well, I don’t know if I would’ve stayed employed but that’s a whole different story. But I appreciate getting to know people before having to really work with them when the stakes are a lot higher.

Emily Griffith: And I’ve been here like six years now, so I can’t even really imagine what it would be like to hop into a meeting with a bunch of strangers and be expected to just contribute. Like, “Go, here.” I feel like that would be intimidating and …

Kristen G: Oh, for sure.

Emily Griffith: I will not perform the best. So having people be like, “Oh, I know everybody in this room and a little bit about them.” Like, “Yeah, I’m going to share my opinion and maybe be a little bit more assertive,” than they would, if you didn’t actually know anybody in the room. So I think that’s the goal. It just doesn’t stop there. Onboarding can go for a long time and once you’re in, it’s not like we drop that attention after the first couple months. So if you continue to have your mentors and your managers and peers around to support your growth and vice versa.

Kristen G: I want to talk a little bit too about your personal experience of being the person at FINE who coordinates this onboarding experience and who coordinates really helping to deliver such a good program. I haven’t gone through it but I can tell that there’s so much thought put into it. What is your experience? What do you like about it? What have you learned over time? And how do you know when it’s time to evolve the program?

Emily Griffith: Well, that’s a good question. Well, it helps that I have a super supportive leadership team, so the managers are involved, our director of Ops has been involved, our tech guru. Mike doesn’t like tech guru, I shouldn’t use that word, but our tech wizard. They are all part of it too so that’s what really fun. The interviews happen, and then we kick off all these processes and you have this rad little team to make sure that all of the steps and all of the boxes get checked. So my experience has been like, I started and it was like, “Okay, here we go.” I had a little welcome letter that had all of my accounts and my tools and my logins.

That was the first step; sitting down and getting your computer set up, getting your desk area set up, just finding the kitchen, how do you make coffee, all that kind of stuff was done. I had a really fun time. It was a busy time when I started so I just jumped right in and started rocking on it. And then as we had more and more people joining the team, I started refining the process based on each experience, I guess. So one employee would come in and it would be like, “Okay, we’re going to make that a little better.” Next time-

Kristen G: Make that a little differently, yes.

Emily Griffith: Yes. There was one employee who moved up that really cemented the experiential side of it for me and that was, our now art director Mayron. He moved up from Los Angeles to Portland, so we actually were introduced by Ken before he even moved, over email. So we were like digital pen pals for a little while.

Kristen G: That’s great.

Emily Griffith: He was like, “What neighborhood should I move to?” and what kind of view. I was even like, “Hey, if you need me to go check out apartment let me know.” It was very much a friendship right away before I even met him so that was the investment in that relationship. I was like, “Oh, okay. This guy is going to be super cool. I’m excited to get him in here and make sure Portland is a good experience. Not just FINE, but our whole, entire city.” Little pressure  there.

So I set up his desk a little bit differently than I had before and thought about different things like all the … Now, we have quite a few branded items but at the time we didn’t have very many but we still had really cute postcards and stickers and pins and all that kind of stuff, and little … I’m really big on having a plant at your desk so making sure we had cute plants and cute pots ready to go, and make people feel homey and comfortable and welcome. And the right chairs, office supplies, all the stuff. I was just like, “What is the ultimate desk set-up?” Like here you go [for your desk]. You know?

And luckily, he documented it the whole time, and then when he showed up, he was just like, “Whoa. Right on,” and was able to just like get into it, sit down and get cracking. He was really positive in the feedback he gave me so that became that type of desk set-up, and I was like 22 years old. I was like, “Yeah, here we go.” Cemented the whole hospitality side and that became standard procedure for just desk set-up. And of course, I built on that every year and every employee too. I just refined based on the merch we had and the supplies that people liked the most and the general tech set-up.

So from there, I got pretty excited about it and our director of ops, Lori, was like, “Right on. Run with it.” Like, “Make you our new plant person, and on that side of onboarding.” So from there, we started making lists and we started using a tool called BambooHR to create those lists and have an easy “click the button and go” type of process, so you get all of your tasks in your email box. And it’s really flexible, so we can add and take away anything that’s working really great or anything that’s not working great and refine it from there. I sit with the employees when they first start and then about a week and a half later, we sit down again and we run through feedback and questions, and that informs every single onboarding experience.

So they’re each a little more … They each have a little bit more sparkle, I guess, but they come from the same core goal, of people coming in and feeling like, “Hey, this place is kick-ass.” Like, “Here we go. Right on. I love it here.” And then from there they get into their work. And that’s my main thing. It’s like people will spend so much time in the office, it’s their second home essentially. So making sure that it’s as comfortable and fun and just feels good when you come to work, that’s the name of the game. I won’t want to work someplace that it was a drag to come in every day.

Kristen G: I definitely agree. That was actually one of the founding … I don’t want to say principle, but something that I thought about a lot when I founded my company several years ago, was work is definitely people’s second home, and it can be for the better, it can be for the worse, and we want to be intentional about trying to make it for the better.

Because if people are spending 8 to 9, 10 hours a day doing this kind of stuff, it can take away a lot from their life so why don’t we try to be intentional about how we add back to their life. The other thing I’m struck by is that you seem like you’re really using your creativity and your art background and you’re getting a chance to think through these kind of … what some companies see as mechanical problems, with an artistic and a creative lens to them.

Emily Griffith: Yes. I definitely do. I get to do a lot of expression around here, and I love having that freedom. There’s nothing better I think than knowing that your employer trusts you with the experience. So I read about feng shui and I read about just office aesthetics and I love articles on … sorry, on decluttering space and making room for space, like those types of things, like for your head space. So we do all kinds of things for people. Like I print out things that I learned about and we have people come in and do ergonomic assessments, and all of that comes from a creative problem-solving space.

So if someone has an issue, I come at it with like, “How can we not only make your experience awesome but impact everybody who may be having that same issue and hasn’t spoken up?” with the creative, problem-solving side of things. And the main thing I love about that is that … then after that people come to me for all kinds of stuff. They’re like, “Hey, I’m throwing a party. What should I do for this table?” That kind of stuff.

Kristen G: The added benefits.

Emily Griffith: … tons of resources who help me with that kind of stuff but I get to do our employee experiences as well so our retreats, and our spirit weeks, and playoffs and all that kind of fun stuff. Happy hours especially, like when you’re talking about you spend so much time at the office and there’s that work/life balance that we want to make sure to support. So we try to do a lot of events where family and spouses and partners and friends are totally welcome, and that allows people to, again, just be themselves with their fams and show the people who they love in their life what they every day, and the community they’re a part of when they’re not at home.

I think that transparency is really important. So work isn’t this scary, weird place that your mom or dad goes every day. It’s like they come in and they’re playing with toys and pop-up books and the gumball machine and taking a swing on the swing. We make sure that that is all from a place of creativity and fun.

Kristen G: Exactly. It’s also a wonderful way to be really inclusive. So, the last thing, the kind of thing I want to close on, is if you have any resources or any advice to people who are thinking about, “How do I start this kind of work at my small company or my agency?” I think you’ve made a pretty solid case about why you should do this and how you’ve done it, but what are some ways people can get started?

Emily Griffith: Ooh, ways to get started. I’d say try to define your essence. We have “bring friends” as our essence. We want clients to feel like our friends, we want employees to feel like our friends, and genuinely, not just like you alluded to earlier. It’s not just written on the wall. It’s something that we actually do. So I recommend anybody who’s struggling with having an onboarding experience that is authentic, I’d say figure out who you are as a company first and then set your dominoes up based around that. Have a very honest onboarding experience and let people know what they’re in for as soon as possible.

Make sure those types of questions are maybe answered in interviews. I think that’s an important thing when people see, “Hey, just jump right in and start.” Instead, we say, “Hey, it’s going to be about two weeks.” You get ramped up and … so be honest about your onboarding process. Figure out who you are and then set up some systems and lists and flexible framework for … Maybe if it’s just an individual who’s starting a company or a whole team, you can keep track of all of it and refine it as you go.

And then getting feedback from the employees is so important.That feedback is essential to making it better for the next person and also I think it allows the employees to feel like they are a part of the culture and a part of the growth. Then pair them up with the new person who comes in too. Having the new hires support each other … ‘Cause we do two hiring seasons, that also might be something I’d recommend to someone starting out so you’re not doing it throughout the year. So we do spring and fall. In the interim, we’re able to identify that maybe there are roles we need to add or the changes we need to make, we need to promote someone inside, it’s already here. Who’s going to come in and fill their role?

There’s a lot to think about between those seasons so if you’re onboarding someone every other month that can be stressful and take apart the actual direct attention you would give to the new hires. So if you have those two hiring seasons, then that cohort, if you will, are going through those trainings and orientations together even if they start … They don’t have to start on the same day. Sometimes they start a couple weeks apart but they still don’t feel isolated and alone. So I think those are all things that I’ve learned from this journey and really help me moving forward. It’s just keeping track of all the things I’m doing, refining it every step of the way, getting honest feedback and making sure those employees don’t feel isolated.

Kristen G: I love that. That’s so important; making sure people don’t feel isolated. If people want to find out more about FINE and more about you, how should they do that?

Emily Griffith: Oh my goodness. Well. You can go to our website. Wearefine.com. You can follow us on Instagram and with the other socials, and then me, I’m around. Come on in any time and say, “Hi.” Have a cup of coffee.

Kristen G: I definitely think everybody should, especially if you’re local to Portland. It’s a lovely office and, Emily, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for sharing so honestly about your experiences and how you’ve grown this program at FINE and why it’s so important. I really appreciate that.

Emily Griffith: Thank you so much Kristen. It was a lot of fun to geek out with you.

Kristen G: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Until next time, grow better.

 

Episode 5 – Don’t Compromise On Employee Experience

On Episode 5 of Up Right & Better, Jill Nelson, founder and CEO of business communications company Ruby Receptionists, shares with us her guiding principles for developing an employee-centric culture that in turn makes her company one of the most awarded in Portland!

Kristen: Hi, welcome back to Up Right & Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up into the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher. Today’s guest is someone I had the opportunity to meet a few months ago at a women led un-conference here in Portland. I’m absolutely honored to have her on the podcast. From humble beginnings 14 years ago, Jill Nelson has grown Ruby Receptionist into a four-time winner of Fortune Magazine’s Top Five Best Small Companies to Work For, and a Portland’s Business Journal’s Fastest Growing Company and Oregon recipient for the past nine years. Today Ruby’s 400 employees provide friendly, live receptionist service to more than 6,000 small businesses throughout North America.

In addition to her own entrepreneurial endeavors, Jill has been recognized for their contributions to Oregon’s business and technology communities, receiving the Technology Association of Oregon’s 2017 Technology Executive of the Year Award, as well as EO’s 2013 Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Jill has served her management philosophy of incenting, inspiring, and empowering employees with global brand such as Mercedes Benz, Leroy Merlin of Europe, and Chiavi of France. Her vision for Ruby includes a workplace where employees are excited to come each day, and inspire to learn, grow, and connect with others. Join me in welcoming Jill Nelson.

Good morning everybody. I’m so exited to have Jill Nelson on the podcast today. Jill is the founder and CEO of Ruby Receptionists. Welcome, Jill.

Jill: Thank you very much, and thank you so much for having me, Kristen.

Kristen: I’m really excited to have you here. I have been greeted at least five times here. I’ve been offered water so many times, and the first 10 minutes of just being here, I watched probably five or six employees just have all kinds of cool conversation with each other, and kind of wanted to listen in to what they were talking about, but today is Administrative Professional’s Day, and they’re all dressed up in 40s, 50s garb, and just having so much fun. I was telling Jill earlier you don’t see that in probably five or six tech offices a week, and I don’t see that kind of energy and joy so something is working here for sure.

Jill: Something is working and thank you for noticing. I feel it too, and I feel really grateful coming in every day. I actually have heard anecdotes of people posting on Facebook, or commenting to their co-workers that they wake up and they go, “Oh, I’m in a bad mood. I can’t wait to get to work, and everything will be better.” [crosstalk 00:03:01] No, it’s not a normal thing.

Kristen: If we spend eight, nine hours a day at work, five days a week, sometimes on the weekends, that’s the majority of our life, right? Why should you come to work to hate what you do and not enjoy that life?

Can you just briefly a little bit about how you started the company and what got you to here today?

Jill: Absolutely, okay. So it has been a long journey and it’s been fourteen plus year adventure of learning and having fun and getting our knees scraped and picking ourselves up and moving forward. But years and years ago, the original idea was to do a traditional, I guess you’d call ’em co-working spaces now, but executive suites with the smaller offices, to support small business with shared secretarial and shared receptionist services that go along with the suite. And I wanted to do it in the Pearl District, because at the time, the Pearl District was up and coming. But I had no money and no business experience, so I couldn’t find a landlord willing to build out a space, so it really was just sort of, I go, “Well, okay, if I can’t do that what can I do with the resources I had?”

So really tinkering with the virtual concept and it just went from there. But originally, the business was about just helping small businesses with their workload. That’s the mindset. Over time and I learn it over and over again, really realize that what it is we’re selling, we are helping small businesses grow through keeping alive those personal connections, those meaningful connections that seem to be increasingly lost and increasingly yearned for as we go through this virtual technology age. And so, that mission of what it is, what it is we’re even providing to our customers, drives, I think that drives both a natural attention to our own culture and who we attract here, we attract people that really identify at their core. They live for their relationships they have with others. And that sort of feeds in and of itself and is part of what makes things magic here.

Kristen: That’s amazing. I appreciate that. And I think, we’re going to get into culture at Ruby quite a bit, in just a minute, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to talk with you is I heard about Ruby’s culture and learning and development and onboarding, kind of through the grapevine, which should tell you something, that if it’s going through the town, someone else is telling you about it, and it’s getting twice removed, three times removed, that there’s something amazing happening here.

When we were talking earlier, you shared with me the onboarding guide and the culture book that new hires get. And there was a planning pyramid in there. Can you talk a little bit about how you have prioritized culture and business planning, strategic planning, and melded those together as a business owner?

Jill: Absolutely. So, the planning pyramid that you’re speaking of, we actually took it from the Rockefeller Habits, it’s Verne Harnish, he has a company called Gazelles that’s about helping entrepreneurs grow at a very rapid pace. And it was really through that book and sort of hearing him speak that I understood that really successful businesses, they have a very well-defined mission. They know why they get up in the morning and they have a clearly defined set of values that drive what it is that they do, that define their decision making purposes, or just decision-making actions. So the planning pyramid, and you can probably Google it and find an example, starts with at the foundation, is those mission and vision values, where it is you’re trying to take the company with your why and doing the things that come from your values. And so, when we go into our annual planning session and define our annual goals and then we attend our quarterly strategic planning session to define what outcomes we’re trying to achieve this quarter and even breaking it down to what ends up at the top of this pyramid is that action items, they start by looking at our mission. Really, every single action ties back to our why.

So even as we today go, our technology’s really evolving and what it is we provide our customers has moved beyond us providing those human interactions, even as we add technology features, we use our mission to drive which features to add. Like, does it help our customers connect with their customers? Then yes, that’s a feature we want. If it doesn’t? Then …

Kristen: Not so much.

Jill: Yes.

Kristen: Yeah. So, I want to sort of modify something I wanted to ask you about, I wanted to ask about the strategic trade-offs that you made. But the reality is that you’ve really grown up in the business. This is your first big business, right?

Jill: Yes.

Kristen: And you mentioned to me, this is what you’ve known. So the question of strategic trade-offs maybe isn’t the right question anymore. It’s about how you decided that this was important, that you were going to actually spend money on investing in employees, in culture. You have a wow station that you can talk about a little bit.

How did you decide to make those investments?

Jill: Yeah. Well, I think … It started with realizing our value proposition was to our customers. And it really was about how we make a difference in their business by being there for them, by being kind to their callers, by really seeking out how can we delight and make someone happy, how can we help them in whatever it is that they want to do. And so, when we got clear about that’s what it is that we wanted to do for our customers, it became very clear that to be successful, we had to attract the type of people that went, “The idea of helping someone, that’s what I live for! If I can someone’s bad day into a good day, that’s a day well spent for me.”

And so the realization of that’s who we want to attract made us understand that we need to live that most importantly inside and outside and so, how we want our receptionists to treat our callers and our customers, we want to model that for them, too. And so if we’re a company of first impressions, we want to give them the first day of their work at Ruby a day to remember, a day to really make that wonderful impression. And then, the other piece of it, too, I think there’s a lot of empowerment through as we scale and grow and maintained our culture or perhaps even strengthen it, it is about really empowering those people. Because I contend the smiling happy people that you met today? They’re in every workplace. It’s just, are they confined by the policies and scripts and rules that a workplace has set on them? Or have they been empowered by the understanding like, you invited me to be at Ruby because of who I am as a person and because of how I care and I know I’m empowered to step outside of a normal workday and bring my own contribution. Whether it’s doing something special for a customer that nobody asked me to do, or bringing my passion for knitting and starting a knitting group at Ruby, it’s understood here that all of those things are welcome.

And so I think that all plays into it and the more we do it, the more we see the beautiful rewards, and the more we go, “Let’s do more of that,” and here we are.

Kristen: Yeah, so. I want to … There are like three questions I’d like to follow up with that. But I’m gonna just pick one. The stepping outside of the policies and rules the norms of, oh well this is not how we normally behave is really interesting to me. There’s, you probably heard a joke in HR that we hire really great people and then we don’t let them do the work.

Unfortunately, that’s really common, right? We set up our workplaces to maybe have this beautiful façade, we have these beautiful values, and then there are things that we are implicitly rewarding and punishing. But I don’t know that I’m seeing that here at Ruby. I’m seeing that you are explicitly rewarding going outside of the bounds to serve a customer. Can you think of any examples of that, just off the top of your head, that have gotten to the wow station?

Jill: Yeah, well, and I’ll talk about the wow station. I’m pretty passionate about this subject because I do think that when you have the right people here, you want to do empower them and encourage them. But as you grow, and even with success, I think it’s really tempting to want to create rules. Because all of a sudden, you’ve had success, and one bad thing, a customer might burn you by not paying their invoice or something. And then all of a sudden, you’re creating new rules that ruin the empower for everybody and ruin the customer experience. We call it railing against the 10%. It’s probably the 1%. The one percent of customers who aren’t to act in good faith, we say goodbye to them, we happily refund their money, and then we do not make new rules for the 99% of customers. The same goes for employees.

Not every employee is excited to get up and come to work at Ruby and you know, honor the trusting environment, and we get that, that’s okay, and hopefully they’ll find their way, but we invite them to no longer be here. But we don’t change the rules for everybody else. And really, sometimes it can be scary, especially for HR professionals, who probably get inundated with cases of they’re trying to protect the company from a legal standpoint, so it’s a little bit more squishy to be like, “No, we’re not going to change the rules.” But I do think that’s one of the things that you have to understand is to not succumb to the 1% that ruins it for everybody. You know, just understand that occasionally you get burned, and then you go on. And [inaudible 00:14:08] better.

The Wow Station is a physical thing as well as a concept. But we inspire our employees to step outside of normal operations and listen to our customers, connect with them and find ways to connect. And when they do, they’re invited to send anything from a note card or a video to even a present of really any dollar value of anything that their imagination comes up with. And we even provide a pre-paid Amazon account that everyone has access to, they can buy anything they want, no questions asked. So, there’s been some really amazing stories that have come out of it.

One long time example was that a receptionist in her first week at Ruby took a call for one of our attorney clients, and he had been in a car accident. And it was their car insurance company following up on a claim. And nobody was injured, but she was unable to reach the attorney to put the call through, so she took a message. Life goes on. A couple days later, a package shows up for that customer and it’s from our brand new receptionist, her name’s Whitney, she’s our top salesperson now. And it was an emergency roadside repair kit with a note that said, “I heard you were in an accident. I hope everyone’s okay and I hope you never need this again, but just in case.” You know, here’s this. And he was just so really, it brightened his day and he thought it was so thoughtful. And he ended up writing a big post to another legal forum, which is great, and it got us press but it also served as inspiration to other people. So that’s an example of some, but we have tons and tons …

And also, you know, talking about the 1%, occasionally, because really anything goes, occasionally you might look at something and go, “Uh! Was that really appropriate?” For example, I’ll just tell you. Like, somebody sent bedsheets to a customer once. I don’t know what that conversation looked like, but I’m sure that customer could have been like, “Oh! That’s so thoughtful,” or, “That’s really kind of odd.” But you just kind of life, and you go, that’s just what can happen and you try to provide great examples going forward.

Kristen: Well, exactly. And people’s best judgment is informed by the culture that they’re working in, right? If you don’t make a habit of sending bedroom items to customers, then it probably won’t happen again.

That’s amazing. I’ve never heard of another company doing something like that. And I love that that is a physical manifestation of the way that people work with each other here and they work with their customers that Ruby has.

I also really appreciate the thoughts you have around not succumbing to that one person. I think we live in a very reactionary field, and human resources, even research and development, is pretty reactionary. You know, somebody comes to us and says, “Ooh, my salesperson isn’t doing this, I think we need to train them of that,” and the reality is that maybe that salesperson isn’t having a good week and we need to figure out what’s going on here. It’s not that they don’t know how to do it, you know? So there could be a lot of things behind that. Even behind the 1%.

I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about some honors that you’ve received this year. You received the 2017 Oregon Tech Executive of the Year. Congratulations.

Jill: Thank you very much. Super excited about that.

Kristen: Yeah, that’s a huge honor. What do you think led you to receiving that award?

Jill: Well, I would say that I actually have a little inside intel that our very, very consistent and strong growth rate year over year, we’ve grown double-digits, I think our average growth rate over the last four, five years has been 40%, but there has not been a year in existence where we haven’t grown. And we’ve taken a pretty traditional model and really created a technology platform that allows it to scale and be more useful for an increasingly large section of very small businesses.

Really, providing a mission-critical service. But I would also contend that we have, one of the big attraction points is we’ve created livable wage jobs that have actually turned into careers in technology. So, we’re really proud that as we’ve grown and changed, our engineering department is made up of senior programmers for sure, but also, junior programmers, one that started as as a receptionist, our QA people started out as receptionists. We have people in product, people in UX, technical support with our telephony, people in rules there that started out as receptionists, so I think it’s this … We’re additive, we’re not taking from, we’re actually bring careers to the community. And I think that was a contributing factor and so I’m super, super proud.

Kristen: I hadn’t read that, and I didn’t know that, and so, I don’t sit on the board [inaudible 00:19:45]. I mean that’s a pretty, you said traditional, you’ve taken traditional jobs that might not lead to a career in tech and that feels, I don’t want to get into robots and automation and all that right now, but in a time right now where everyone feels like the human is going to go away, and things are going to be automated and taken away and their connection is going to be gone, you’ve really created a pipeline to answer some of the challenges that people are afraid of.

Jill: That’s right.

Kristen: That’s amazing, congratulations. The last couple of things I want to talk about are sort of rubber meets the road type of things. We talked earlier about the choices you’ve made to invest in the business, but I want to talk about kind of physical things. You, I’ve heard such good things about the onboarding program here, we were talking about it just a little bit before. And there are, as I look around the office, there are notebooks, mugs, flowers, all kinds of beautiful physical things that cost money. And I think the pressure in tech companies, especially, but in any company today, is to cut costs wherever you can.

How have you decided to invest in experiences like onboarding and other employee engagement experiences?

Jill: Well, and I would contend that we too try to be very economical in how we use our resources. But what it is that we do and our brand, it’s incredibly important to infuse that throughout the day. And we at Ruby talk about the touchpoints. Like everything that you see that has to do with Ruby, whether it’s the physical environment or our people getting in the elevator, that communicates something about our brand. So that remains very important, but also that experience for our employees. We are selling a human experience so we have to create an environment that brings out the best in all of us. The onboarding thing, I’m super passionate about too, because we are also a business of first impressions, and you know the saying, you never get a second chance to make a great first impression.

But that employee’s first day, how much it sets the tone, not just for how they feel that they’re treated by their employer but actually what they feel that they’re going to be expected to do, too. So if you come into your first day, and your computer is already set you, and you have a lovely gift with a note from your supervisor welcoming you and a present and your computer already has all of the applications that you are going to be using in your workday and someone’s already asked you if you’re left-handed or right-handed and what kind of ergonomic keyboard you have and you’re ready to go? That also sets the tone of what you’re going to be expected to bring in your position, too.

So, it is a great investment. I think … And we have so much fun with it. And it gets better and better all of the time. And when you’re growing really rapidly, that risk of … You know, the people that have been here for years have a very, very strong sense of what we’re about. But since we grow rapidly, there’s always a strong percentage of employees that are relatively new. And we want that culture to continue to thrive. So the more we can sort of firehouse them with our Ruby Experience in the first few days, weeks, and months, the more that protects our culture going forward, too.

Kristen: Wow, that’s amazing, I think … It doesn’t just boil down to cutting costs or making sure that it’s economic or makes economic sense, but it is the concept that your customers come first. But in order to have that be case, your employees actually have to come first. Which is actually a surprisingly hard argument to make to a lot of businesses.

Jill: I do feel, too … I know the concept of core values in a business is pretty mainstream. I find it hard to say, “Oh, we have these core values that apply to our customers, but they don’t apply to this other segment.” Your values are your values. You live them consistently. [crosstalk 00:24:22] I think that that plays into it, too.

Kristen: It almost certainly goes into it. Well, Jill, thank you so much for taking time with us today. The work that you’ve done with Ruby and the team that you’ve brought on is just amazing and it’s very obvious that you’re some place with this company.

Jill: Oh, thank you very much for the kinds words, and thank you so much for having me on your podcast.

Kristen: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at hello@uprightandbetter.com. Until next time, grow better.

Episode 4 – It May Be Working, But It May Not Be Right

On Episode 4 of Up Right & Better, Luke Kanies, founder and former CEO of Puppet, joins us to talk frankly and openly about the challenges of being a CEO, understanding that the facts live outside the building, and how he worked to be intentional about culture at his company.

Luke has been publishing and speaking on his work in system administration since 1997, focusing on development since 2001. His work with Puppet has been an important part of dev ops and delivering on the promise of cloud computing. He currently serves as director of Puppet Labs, but recently he’s be writing things like, “The Wrong Successes Kill Companies,” in which he reminds us that just because it’s working doesn’t make it right.

Kristen: Today’s guest is Luke Kanies who founded Puppet Labs Incorporated in 2005 and also served as its chief executive officer until the fall of 2016. Luke has been publishing and speaking on his work in system administration since 1997, focusing on development since 2001. His work with Puppet has been an important part of dev ops and delivering on the promise of cloud computing. He currently serves as director of Puppet Labs, but recently he’s be writing things like, “The Wrong Successes Kill Companies,” in which he reminds us that just because it’s working doesn’t make it right.

I met Luke in late 2016 when he generously agreed to answer a bunch of invasive questions about what he might have done differently as he built Puppet and I’m so excited to have him on the podcast. In this episode we talk about failure CEOs don’t like to admit to, hiring, bad experiences with HR, diversity and a whole lot more. Welcome Luke.

Can you talk a little bit about why you founded Puppet and how you came to that solution?

Luke Kanies: Yeah, I actually wrote a little about this this week. I was talking about publishing and this is one of the things I published this week. I was out of college, I was a chemistry degree who I knew I wasn’t gonna be a scientist and went into being a sys admin. After seven or eight years as a sys admin, I essentially worked myself out of both doing the work and being interested in the work so I was focused on automation and things like that. After a couple years of that, as a consultant I kind of went I could make a lot of money at this, but I hate it. I looked at getting an MBA because the badge is useful, but I didn’t think education would be useful. I looked at going to law school because the badge isn’t nearly as useful as an MBA and I thought the education would actually be more useful to me. But it turns out becoming a lawyer is so expensive, you have to go to law school, you have to actually become a lawyer afterwards.

Kristen: Be a lawyer, yeah.

Luke Kanies: Which I didn’t want to do, I just wanted to have a JD.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: I basically said I think failing to start a software company will be more educational than successfully getting an MBA. At the time, it’s not so much that I thought that I had better ideas than anybody else I knew. But I knew everyone in the world pretty much was working on the problem that Puppet was built to solve. Of them, I was the only one who was gonna start a company. It’s a bit like the joke about poker, if you look around the table and you don’t know who the sucker is, it’s you. I looked around the table and I didn’t know who the entrepreneur was and I was like well I guess it’s gonna be me.

Luke Kanies: So a lot of it was I had all this insight and I saw an opportunity to turn it into equity. I saw a problem that I didn’t see anybody taking active movements to solve. Today, it’s pretty old hat for a sys admin to start a company. But when I started Puppet, there weren’t any. I thought maybe I can be one part of getting a movement started around we could build our own tools and once we build a good tool, we can start a company to make money on those tools. We can join the capital class too, we don’t always have to just be labor.

Kristen: Instead of diving into the history of Puppet and what you’ve done with Puppet and you have recently stepped down as CEO and are on effectively a sabbatical, writing a lot, touring around, doing some really interesting things, I want to talk about the actual people of Puppet and your experience in hiring those people, managing those people and considering them as the capital that actually made the capital for the company. So fall back to when Puppet was pre-ten employees, how did you get to ten employees and what was the momentous occasion that caused ten employees to show up one day?

Luke Kanies: Puppet is weird in a bunch of ways. I would definitely not recommend the way in which we did what we did. Puppet was bootstrapped for four and a half years. I started Puppet in maybe February of 2005, we raised our first round of capital in June of 2009. In between we were ramen profitable. I was the only employee for three of those four and a half years, three and a little bit of change.

Kristen: Yeah.

Luke Kanies: So the big thing that allowed us to get from three to ten was we got two and a quarter million dollars deposited into our bank account, which it turns out is a thing that allows you to hire people. Our first 25 employees, very, very few of them stuck around. What everyone else talks about with successful startups is that early spirit, the early culture and how are we gonna make sure we don’t lost that.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: For me, that was literally all between my ears. All that early culture was literally just Luke. Even those two people that joined later, they got given the title of founder, but they weren’t there for the early learning, they weren’t there for the building of the product. By the time they joined we were already making cash, we already had customers, I was paying myself a meager salary, I was able to pay them and they were only able to join because I was able to pay them basically a six figure salary.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: Those things we think about as the early days, everyone thinks is 2009 to 20011 at Puppet. But it wasn’t, it was 2005 to 2007. So those early days had many casualties as a result of me not realizing what my job was. Me having read all the advice what’s the job of the founder, the job of the founder is to empower your employees, get out of their way, you shouldn’t stand over them, you shouldn’t tell them what to do all the time. Of course, you do that as a founder and what you’re gonna have is a failure because your job is to lead and leading is not about vaguely describing … It’s not about empowering your employees, it’s telling them what to do and make sure they don’t do it and if they don’t do it, fire them as quickly as possible because you’ve only go so much time on this Earth.

The process of figuring all that out was very expensive for me, it was expensive for the people around me and it had a lot of casualties. The 0 to 25 was a painful, slow, high cost affair and by about the time we got to 50 or 80, I had a sense of okay, I can almost see what a company is like, I have some successes and not just some failures, I have some places where my direct involvement is a positive thing. But it happened much later for us than it did for most people.

Kristen: Sure. To be honest with you, I think having seen both from some of my own clients and other companies, I think there’s a lot of lore that company’s early people, they’re the backbone of the company and they are the culture. But in reality, the first 80 people the just stuck around because there was this lore around having them there and people who were managing them might … They were not able to let go.

Luke Kanies: Right.

Kristen: There was too much …

Luke Kanies: They were talismans, as opposed to great people.

Kristen: Right and then seven years later, eight years later, you have situations where this person is a horrible, horrible toxic human who is ruining this and it was cancerous to this organization. But I’m not strong enough to let them go. Or on the more common side, we get to this place where they have all of this knowledge and if I let them go I don’t know how I’m gonna get it back. It sounds like it was hard and painful and I fully trust you that it was. But I think maybe there’s also some …

Luke Kanies: I don’t think it was as special as I made it sound. I have to recognize I wasn’t unique.

Kristen: Sure.

Luke Kanies: I do think certainly it was outside of the way we tell stories about the early days and I was never under the illusion that those first 25 people or first 50 people were that special. Where I think most people they have that problem that you’re talking about, I didn’t have as much of that problem because … Actually a huge part of me becoming successful in what I was doing personally as opposed to the company was recognizing that what I had to do was find a way to go back to those first three years and expose that to more people as opposed to build a platform for new people to step in.

Kristen: Right. I was listening to someone speak recently about the concept that he hired based on fit for the moment and fit for what the company was gonna be doing in the 6 to 12 months. Case in point, I am a builder not a maintainer. I will never be able to step into a role where I have to do the same thing every day for the rest of my days. I can do it, but I’m gonna go crazy and bad things will happen. So I’m not right for a company of 500 people whose gonna stay at 500 people for the foreseeable future. I’m wondering did that show up? Maybe there were successes and maybe mistakes where this person was right at that moment and maybe 18 months pass and they’re no longer right or maybe 36 months pass and they’re no longer right. Did you ever experience that?

Luke Kanies: If you can pick those 5 to 10 most common ways in which things can go wrong, we did all of those multiple times. So that absolutely happened, but we also had a lot of … I wasn’t a developer when I started Puppet. So in the three to four years that I was the only real person working on the product, I became a developer. But then I started hiring developers and I’m the CEO so my time’s being dragged in all places. One of the biggest mistakes I made was saying thankfully now I have real developers on the project, I’ll hand it to them. All their reaction was essentially wow, all this software is horrible, I don’t understand it at all and why does the CEO have so many opinions about my work. Because of course I’m still the project manager, I’m still for better or worse I’m the person who knows everything about … It’s not even that, I’m still the lead developer. Whether you acknowledge it or not, there’s only one person that understand the architecture of this product, it’s me. There’s one person …

Kristen: Yeah.

Luke Kanies: I kept trying to step away and hand it to the developers, but at the same time I kept failing to do so for obvious reasons because I’m literally the only person in the whole world who knows anything about the product. My major conflict was I kept seeing my inability to work with people as a failure on my part to step away, when in fact it was a failure on my part to hire people I was compatible with.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: So I’m hiring a developer and there are some developers who I could’ve worked with really, really effectively in the early days and I have some of those now at the company. But I didn’t hire any of those in the first two to three years and when I saw a conflict, I always interpreted that conflict as a failure on my part on a day to day basis, as opposed to a failure on my part when it came to team building.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: So nearly all of the other failures, not literally all of them, but a much larger proportion than I would like to admit and certainly I realized at the time, was I didn’t work hard enough to get somebody who could work with me. I didn’t rotate enough on compatibility with me being important. It’s one of those you spend your whole life training yourself not to be egotistical and not be full of yourself, not to think the universe revolves around you and then you come to this role and the biggest mistake you can make is not thinking the universe revolves around you.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: By the time I actually learned how to correct the mistake it no longer did revolve around me because I did have more of a team, there were people who had made it through and who were surviving or they were thriving in the new world.

Had no other option but to spend the energy … This was when people talk about hiring fit over experience or hiring for capability over experience, what they really mean is the best person in the damn world who you can’t work with on a day to day basis is literally worthless to you, literally worthless. Somebody who has capability and who you are super excited to work with every day and an hour of mentoring that person makes you happen and energized instead of drained and suicidal is a much better fit. So, that’s the first of the trickle down.

The second is there’s a reason why you’re winning. There’s a reason why you’re successful enough that you’re able to hire somebody. There’s a reason why you’re successful enough that you’re able to do these things. It’s not the only way, that isn’t to say and all the ways are worthless.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: But you have a way that you know works. You’ve got a successful model that anything other than trying to replicate that model is again, it’s heat loss, it’s waste. Maybe you’ll find another better one, maybe hiring somebody who has completely divergent views of yours will help you to a better model. So what you need to do if find somebody that goes I love this model, I will show up every day and continue to execute this model and I fully support and I am here to learn from you and to find a way to duplicate your success.

The third way is there are ways to build tools that can help you reinforce this and there are some downsides to these tools that we built at Puppet eventually. It’s fair to say that we never got the most out of this but we built what I called a personal operating manual where we took some personality tests but we also took a bunch of kind of simple questions that were … If you view yourself as a minefield, how would you help somebody navigate that minefield? Here’s how to get the most out of me, but by the way if you do one of these four things, you should not be surprised if I scream at you. I’m not saying I’m excused for screaming at you, but at least now you’ll know why.

Kristen: Yeah. [inaudible 00:12:57]

Luke Kanies: Here’s a way that you can easily avoid it. Now, one of the downsides we had with this POM was that people pretty quickly went well you saw my operating manual, of course I was gonna flip out on you. No, this isn’t justification for you being a child, this is helping to inform the people around you. I do feel like as a hiring manager one of the things that it was incumbent on me to do was to try to give somebody in the interview process an idea of what it was really like to work with. I don’t mean are we going to be compatible, what I mean is I’m incredibly opinionated, there are going to be times where I have two hours to spend with you and I’m really, really concerned about how you feel and I want to make you feel better and there are times where seriously this is not okay.

People need to understand what they’re getting into and if they show up on day one they’re like wow the beta was great, but the production version is not any good, then you’ve got a real problem. You have to expose that so the personal operating manual I found was actually a pretty good way to say here as some pretty deep flaws I have and by the way, I’ve written this down, I’m not really working on these. These ones, as you were saying, are not gonna get better.

Kristen: Yeah.

Luke Kanies: That’s it. At Puppet at a certain point we got to the point where we had an intro lecture that I used to give in person to every new employee group and we eventually recorded that lecture and then I still met with all the new employees but it was instead of doing … It was all Q and A and they would watch the lecture some other time. It was 15, 20 minutes of here’s what I think, here’s where I work, I’m a real person, don’t …

Kristen: Don’t be weird.

Luke Kanies: Yeah or at least if I’m weird it’s because I’m a weird person, it’s not because I’m some sort of far off in the distance [inaudible 00:14:35] type thing.

Kristen: Yeah. I think that could be another conversation about just open communication. One of the things that I’ve found that is easier as a consultant is you hire me to tell you what’s wrong and if you don’t like it when I tell you, I can leave and you can leave and we can stop the contract. But as an employee, for example, I find a lot of, for me, a lot of similarities in your communication style that … I don’t know if it’s the east coaster in me, I don’t know what it is. But I am much more honest and much more up front and I ask for a lot of deep criticism and I give a lot of deep criticism. But I also won’t give any criticism that doesn’t have support behind it. That quickly makes you no friends in certain environments.

As a leader of a company or a manager, you’re not there to make friends often. But I don’t see … That doesn’t come-

Luke Kanies: Pointedly yeah.

Kristen: Through all the time in management. I could definitely talk more about that but I actually wanted to switch gears a little bit into human resources.

Luke Kanies: I have one point before we switch.

Kristen: Yeah.

Luke Kanies: On the east coaster versus … So I’m not an east coaster. I’m not from anywhere. I think that could be part of it. I think that our society, our definitions of success are so exclusionary and so little meritocracy. You think about … I’ll throw in a couple at the end to make it clear how exclusive we really are. So we only let people succeed who are white men, you can kind of do it as early as 20 or so, but you really need to be upper 20s and ideally early 30s. You really probably shouldn’t be older than 65 or so.

Kristen: No disabilities.

Luke Kanies: Right, no disabilities. You gotta be fit, you can’t be too fat or too skinny, you probably shouldn’t be fit. It can be all muscle but … You gotta be a morning person. If you aren’t a morning person, fix it, act like you are. You gotta start getting up at 5 in the morning and bragging about it. We all know the leader shows up, I open the office every day. Why? So everyone knows I’m a leader, okay.

Kristen: Other making assumptions there.

Luke Kanies: You think about it and you go any given person at the table justifying their existence relative to anybody else who could be there, any direct confrontation to the … They’re not incentivized, I should say we because I fit in that bucket. We’re not incentivized to question our assumptions about ourselves. In fact, quite the opposite, once we begin questioning our own assumptions, once we begin questioning our own beliefs, the whole thing feels pretty fragile. I don’t think your being an east coaster is a sufficient explanation for why everyone’s like this and certainly this exclusionary aspect of our society is also not a sufficient explanation. But I think it’d be unfair to say neither of them … It’d be unfair to say that neither one is sufficient or that neither of them is present.

Kristen: Yeah, I think that’s a solid, scientific assessment of that situation. [inaudible 00:17:37] and could also be its own thing.

I want to switch gears a little bit and talk … We have previously talked about human resources and mistakes and how difficult it is to actually know what you’re getting into when you hire a human resources person. Can you talk about when you first decided I’m gonna hire an HR person? What went through your mind and what were you hoping to do to [crosstalk 00:18:01]

Luke Kanies: Well it took a lot of convincing because I didn’t decide it, somebody else said you really need to hire an HR person. We went through multiple rounds of not success. I’m a stubborn loser. My head of finance at the time said we really need somebody to do HR and I said that doesn’t sound right, anyone I’ve ever worked with in HR has been [inaudible 00:18:23] evil. I don’t think that’s a good fit. So she said someone’s gotta do payroll and I’m tired of it being me. I went okay. There are tasks that do have to be done, again, people would selfishly would like to eat. That was a big part of what caused us to start hiring HR people and then recruiting is a thing that historically falls in that bucket. So those things kind of led to it.

But our first HR person very much … She was another person that culturally we did not … We weren’t a great fit and it took me a long time to go wait a second, this is a thing where you and I have to agree and if we don’t agree, it’s because you joined the wrong company. I’m not wrong and you’re not wrong, but we’re definitely wrong for each other. So that led to a bit more investigation and a bit more trying and even then once I had a strong HR leader as opposed to an HR practitioner … So anyway I could begin to form the team under, then I could begin to better understand the discipline of HR versus the other things. One of the things that became really clear was I think greater than most organizations in the company, there is a significant separation between the tradition of what the role of HR within a company is and how they talk about their role. Because if you look historically about why the discipline developed and if you look at what the first three biggest problems there are to solve, they don’t really have anything to do with the touchy, feely people oriented aspects of HR.

If anything, I think most organizations develop a comprehensive HR department primarily to protect the company. I remember, one example is we began hiring somebody to do legal training because it’s actually pretty important that your hiring managers have some idea of what the law is. There are things that … People can sue you for anything so there’s nothing you can do to prevent yourself from being sued, but there are some things that’ll guarantee you’ll lose the lawsuit. There are some things that you should be sued for as opposed to you can be sued for. It’s important train people on those. Some of those aren’t obvious. There are questions that you might think this is a great get to know you question and you just landed yourself in a lawsuit. There are really good reasons to train your teams on the legalities of hiring.

However, the first couple of conversations we had with this person who was gonna train us were very much here is the thin line you must walk and your primary concern is not being sued. So as opposed to here is education about what the shape of the law is and how to get what you want done, but also not break any rules and let’s understand them and here’s why some of these make sense and here’s why we frankly don’t think this makes sense but it’s still true. It came a here’s how to protect yourself. Then when you talked about the conversation about discrimination, it was very clear that the first … Job number one, are we in danger. Then if you’ve still got time in your 30 minutes, if you’ve got 5 minutes left we can talk about how you’re feeling and whether you’re okay.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: Again, it’s not so much that anybody … Nobody’s doing evil. Nobody’s a bad person. But as an industry, the kinds of training and opinions that HR produces are clearly biased towards protecting the company. But if you listen to them talk about why they’re here, that’s not what they say. So there’s this really, really big separation between those two. Those who are on the development side of the house might see the separation sometimes where you’re at a company that talks about the user all the time, but in practice they don’t ever talk to the users and don’t understand what the user really wants. So they’re we’re a design oriented shop but we only talk to the buyer and we never actually know what the user does.

Kristen: That’s great. I think that was one of the questions that I had and wanted to dive deeper into and something that I’ve personally been chewing on a lot lately. I feel that maybe I’ve read one too many … I hate even saying it that way. But one too many statements, one too many [inaudible 00:22:26] articles suggesting … Painting that HR was not there to help in certain circumstances of racism, discrimination, sexism of any variety. I think that maybe we need to have a conversation about HR’s participation.

Luke Kanies: HR showed up and did its job perfectly, the company was safe.

Kristen: Right, the company was safe. There’s little legal action, supposedly none for most companies.

Luke Kanies: We’ve made it really clear to people who report that you’re gonna be fired, there’s nothing you can do about being fired, you can sue us all you want there’s not gonna be any proof. By the way, if you make it to court the jury’s gonna rule against you because all of this is he said she said kind of stuff in nearly every case. Even having reported, if your name makes it on a lawsuit, no one’s ever gonna hire you again, but the person who you sued is gonna look like the victim somehow. Our society has made that super clear.

Kristen: Very clear.

Luke Kanies: There’s this pernicious myth that women support harassment somehow for their own benefit. But of course only white dudes think that and only dudes think that’s a real thing because in practice, any reporting of harassment or discrimination of any kind is usually a sign that it’s time for you to leave town and you’re never gonna … Every work experience you have is never gonna count for anything every again and you’ll probably take a 30 to 50% pay cut and probably be an independent employee for the rest of your life.

Kristen: It’s true. Having myself been dragged into a HR conversation about discrimination and sexism, it was not there to make my life better. It was not there to assuage my fears. Which brings me to another question that I think is a really pivotal one in the conversation about diversity but I don’t hear it a lot or hear it talked about a lot. Let’s just take the example of a very talented engineering manager, maybe somebody who is very senior, has stayed with the company for quite a long time and holds a lot of tasks and knowledge and they’re actually a huge problem culturally.

Luke Kanies: This is super common.

Kristen: Very common unfortunately. You’re then faced with the hard decision of do I let this person go and make almost a, you can decide how far you want to go, but make a lesson out of that or do I just sweep it under the rug and deal with it because they are the one who architects my project?

Luke Kanies: I think you have to phrase the choice differently than that because when it’s phrased that way it’s an easy answer. But I think you have to phrase it differently, which is do I let this one person stay or do I let women stay.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: Because that’s actually what you’re deciding in the end. Do I choose to exclude something like 50 to 70% of the available workforce in my country because I won’t hire people who aren’t white people and I’m not excluding women, so that rules out most people.

Kristen: That’s a lot of people.

Luke Kanies: Or do I want this one person to stay.

Kristen: Right.

Luke Kanies: That’s not how people think about it. They think about it like I’ll find a way to make this work and for a long time that was reasonable because there weren’t any places that women could work that wouldn’t treat them like this. What people are beginning to find is I can leave Uber, I can leave other places and I can get a great job somewhere else because there are places like Stripe, there are places that women can go work that are pretty awesome places to work for women. There are places like Etsy that have done a fantastic job of empowering and enabling women. Suddenly you go, as a woman I have a choice of working at a company that keeps that jerk around or I … So there’s competition for your great developers and that competition is driving the right behaviors. The only reason hwy we care about this today is A, we’ve got disadvantaged people have a platform that they didn’t have two decades ago and B, there’s a place they can go where they can … And it’s not gonna be perfect for them too. There’s gonna be discrimination everywhere so it’s gonna be way better than it is at the other place.

So you gotta phrase the choice correctly and now that is a really choice because women, they will leave. Not just the women but all the dudes who believe women are people, those people will also leave. So what you end up with is that one person changed the entire nature of your organization and that’s not right either. You, your tolerance of that intolerance, of that discrimination changed the entire nature of your company.

Kristen: Exactly. I really appreciate the flipping of the question and the distinction you made there. Because I think often times consultants, people in my world often are saying saving somebody like that, letting them stay is going to ruin your culture and that’s the exact kind of vague language that I don’t tolerate.

Luke Kanies: Right.

Kristen: What does ruin your culture mean? Yeah, sure, that’s a byproduct. But you’re right, the reality is that I’ve literally said by inaction that I don’t want you to work here if you’re a woman, I don’t want you to work here if you’re black, I don’t want you to work here if you’re disabilities or a veteran because what I value more is the profit that I’m going to make and not having a hard conversation … I’ve actually been told by an HR person and a CEO about the same engineering manager that A, they’ve improved a lot in five years …

Luke Kanies: Right. They don’t ever beat the women who work for them, they only yell at them now.

Kristen: I don’t want to know what we was like five years ago, if I couldn’t tolerate it now. B, he’s just so valuable we have to keep him.

Luke Kanies: Right.

Kristen: We can’t replace him.

Luke Kanies: I could see somebody saying this person is worth me never hiring a woman ever again.

Kristen: Sure.

Luke Kanies: It’d be weird, but I could hear somebody saying that.

Kristen: It depends what your motivations are.

Luke Kanies: I think people need to realize that that’s what they’re actually doing.

Kristen: I agree.

Luke Kanies: Especially, of course you’re going to keep hiring women accidentally, so what you really mean is it worth me continuing to hire women who never get promoted. So every woman I ever hire, I’m gonna hire very few of them and the few I do hire are gonna last 18 months and we all know the people that leave within 18 months are some of the most expensive people. They leave within 12 months it’s not that expensive, but if they leave in 18 to 24 months, they’re here long enough that people rely on them and then they’re gone and now they … Those people are never gonna become valuable people in my company because I’ve prevented them.

Kristen: Right. But I’ve spent a lot of money on them and I invested …

Luke Kanies: And then the second thing is you’ve now taught your entire company by the way, you know all the things that I say that I want you to believe, I wouldn’t do that anymore. I’ve always said I care about diversity, I care about inclusion, but I’ve demonstrated that it’s not true through my actions. But don’t worry that’s the only thing that I’m lying to you about. No one believes that.

Kristen: No.

Luke Kanies: So once you stand up and you do a thing that everyone in the room … Because everyone in the room knows, they all see that person in the conference room yelling at women and only women. They all see that, they all know, they can tell that you’re lying, they can tell that they cannot trust you.

Kristen: I think that’s such a salient point that leaders often think that people do trust them innately for whatever reason. But it is these very … I guess maybe even relate it to microaggressions, the thousand tiny cuts. People can see, but they might never tell you. They’re never gonna walk up to the CEO and mention this is a little hypocritical for you.

Luke Kanies: I’ve certainly have people do that to me.

Kristen: Really, did you? What was that experience like?

Luke Kanies: I spent too much time in firewall configurations so I think about this as default except on criticism. I couldn’t possibly explain why, I could explain it but I’m not sure it would be usefully explainable.

Kristen: Sure.

Luke Kanies: But when people say here’s this thing you’re wrong about or here’s this thing that you’re missing, then I start with the assumption that they’re correct. I start with the assumption that their opinion has as much validity as mine. I spend a lot of time thinking and a lot of my beliefs are very defensible. If I find that I agree with somebody in general, when I test it all I find that I was probably actually … I was the one who was correct. Not because I’m super smart, but because for most of the things that I bother expressing an opinion about I have been thinking about for 10 times longer than you have and that’s the only reason why. If you spent as much time on it as I have, you would’ve had a more correct opinion. When somebody comes and says I have this experience that from my perspective makes you a liar, what you can’t do is say you don’t have that experience.

Kristen: Actually you can, I’ve had that done to me before. But it depends on the standing.

Luke Kanies: You’re right, there are a bunch of silent words in there like authentically and with any honor or justifiably or in the court of law.

Kristen: Or if you go on another podcast and say actually we have a wonderful culture in our company or you may be the keynote speaker somewhere.

Luke Kanies: I’m a product manager, I love all of my products, they are all perfect and they work fantastically and all of my ideas are brilliant until I talk to a user. You have a choice, when a user tells you that this is stupid and you have to fix it you have a choice, you can be right or you can be successful. Those are your two choices, you gotta listen to users. So building a product really helped me understand and everyone knows this from reading Eric Reaves and reading Steven Blank facts of outside the building. I think of culture as a design problem and as the CEO, I’m not building culture for me, I don’t need help especially as the white guy. I already didn’t need help but I’m the boss, you literally can’t discriminate against me. This is solvable.

So what I have to say is who am I designing my culture for and how am I convincing myself that I have succeeded at that. If one of the people I say wow, I think they’re one of my vulnerable users, if the come to me and say you aren’t there yet, if I’m a designer, if I’m a product manager and I really think the facts outside the building I better listen. So not only did I encourage people to come talk to me, but I went on the [inaudible 00:32:26] and they did, it’s bad when somebody comes to you and says this thing that you love … You might’ve been on a podcast yesterday talking about how great your culture was, you might’ve been on stage yesterday saying it, here’s a place you were lying. I saw that and me and my team around me, we’re all pissed off at you and now …

I remember I had this dinner, it was fall of 2014 and I had dinner with eight women, it was the hardest night I’ve ever had as a CEO, it was the hardest time.

Kristen: They were all Puppet …

Luke Kanies: They were all Puppet employees and they pretty much all were really pissed off at me. Now I realized later on that we collected the eight most pissed off women in the entire company for that dinner-

Kristen: That’s not a bad thing.

Luke Kanies: It was a tactical mistake in terms of figuring out … You have to have a more complete picture. I failed to acquire a complete picture that day, but it was a hell of a stark awakening.

Kristen: Yeah.

Luke Kanies: In terms of how far I was in terms of where I thought I was as a leader. You have to do that.

Kristen: I was gonna ask you if you had any parting words of wisdom for other founders, other CEOs. But I feel like that was actually really clear parting wisdom. That you can choose to be right or you can choose to be successful.

Luke Kanies: The facts of outside the building, if you think Eric Reaves is right about products, you gotta use the same practices to build your culture. That means that your perspective as the white male leader of your organization is literally irrelevant. The only people who are relevant are people who you’re trying to build advantage for in a way that wouldn’t happen organically. You’ve gotta go talk to them. And you’ve gotta have people who you also know can go talk to them in a way because you aren’t trustworthy. You as the CEO are the wielder of ultimate power, so they aren’t gonna always trust you. You’ve gotta demonstrate day to day, year to year … Those women at that dinner were willing to talk to me in a way that they wouldn’t be willing to talk to other people because I had demonstrated over the years that for all that I wasn’t succeeding necessarily, I was really, really trying and one of the things that worked out really well at that dinner is I was able to say here are three things that are going on right now that I’ve been working on for three months, here’s the person whose working on it, here’s when I expect it to ship and here’s why I think this is one of the most important things to work on.

So for all that we were struggling I was also able to say I’m aware of some of these struggles and I’m making direct and positive effort towards some of them. That really helped and I was able to include some of them in some of the effort. So they were able to go okay, for all that I was a little bit blindsided, I’m also not completely ignorant nor kind of leaving things sit. You’ve gotta get outside the building. If Eric Reaves were to write a book on HR, he would definitely say talking to just your HR team isn’t goo enough. That’s the CEO talking to his product team, not the CEO talking to his customers or her customers.

Kristen: Any kind of last thoughts about culture or HR or people management?

Luke Kanies: The last piece maybe would be another piece of advice for me three to five years ago, which is … There was a time when I became despondent as CEO because there’s a point in time where you realize the absolute best you can hope to do is to be less discriminatory than the wider society. Because within a system that has biases and all of us have biases as individuals, as a culture, as a business culture. Our business culture itself has some pretty impressive biases. Within that system, you can compensate for many of them, you can have an organization that is dramatically better for the best people than the people around. But you can’t really have a world that is isolated, so it’s important to recognize the difference between I succeeded at building an organization that’s absent from all these problems, that’s missing all these problems and I succeeded in making a better organization that people are proud to be at.

It took me a long time once I realized kind of where I was failing and succeeding, it took me a long time to stand up and go wait a second, there’s work to do but I can and I should be proud of the work I’ve done. I think as important as it is to stand up and work on things, it’s equally important to stand up and say but here’s what I’ve accomplished and here’s where I can and did make a difference, therefore here’s a platform of success to build on. If all you can do is look around you and see here’s how far we are from success and I wasn’t really good at seeing here’s how far we’ve come. You have to feel like I did good work yesterday or you can’t show up to work tomorrow and do good work again.

Kristen: There’s so many other things that we could talk about that are on my mind and I know that you’re thinking a lot about writing about what you believe and HR-

Luke Kanies: On that note actually if anybody’s interested in … Some of these things I’ll absolutely be writing about on my medium blog, if you look for L Kanies on medium you’ll find me, I’m pretty easy.

Kristen: Wonderful.

Luke Kanies: My last name is rare enough that I’m easy to find on the internet.

Kristen: Well thank you so much Luke, I appreciate you being on today.

Luke Kanies: Thank you for having me here.