How understanding our business “Why?” dramatically improved our hiring process

I think a lot about my work. It’s borderline obsessive at times, which I have to manage…but that’s another blog post.

Most of my ponderous thoughts consider Atlas’ staff and its customers; but my team have been front and centre of my mind over the past 6 months.

The reason for this is that we’ve recently grown the team to 21 members up from 15, a 40% increase. This is still a small business to most. However, I don’t know anybody who runs a business and believes their team size is the metric they should strive to increase. In fact, the truth is that most of the founders I speak with see the growth of their team as a happy(?) side effect of increasing profits and revenue. I say happy with a snarky question mark in brackets because as a company increases its head count the team culture changes, sometimes rapidly and drastically, and that change is terrifying.

On the subject of team culture, I had the pleasure of attending a talk in Silicon Valley by Steve Blank, author of 4 steps to an epiphany and the spiritual GodFather of the Lean Startup.

Steve provided a candid and interesting summary of his decades of experience working with hundreds of founders who have been on the journey to grow their business and their headcount. Steve was close to the action, and saw the gruesome evolution of team culture up close and personal.

As an aside – Steve also said that at least one of the founders of most startups are unceremoniously removed from the business somewhere along its pathway to serious growth. The skills required to start a business are just not the same as those required to sustain and grow one.

Anyway, about half way through his talk Steve caught the attention of the room with a simple analogy…”Imagine your team culture as a lovely, tasty bowl of ice cream. Delicious eh? You’d eat that entire bowl without pause. Now imagine there’s a speck of shit in that ice cream, how much would you like to eat now?”.

Ewww! The entire room reeled with disgust. Nobody wants shitty ice cream. And in that single instant, everybody in that room concluded they didn’t want to be a member of a shitty ice cream team.  In fact, most people had experienced shitty ice cream teams at some stage in their career and knew how bad it tasted.

Putting foundations in place for growth – understanding our Why?

With Steve’s words ringing in my ears in August 2018 it became clear to me that for Atlas (my bespoke software company) to grow revenue it would need to increase headcount. Since being founded in 2007 I had had purposefully constrained staff growth on the basis that we would rather grow mega conservatively than take on too many staff and not be able to make payroll one month.

While this strategy sustained the business it did so at the cost of restraining growth. This had to change.  We had lofty goals for growth and wouldn’t achieve our ambitions without the right people on the team. Not only that, with a solid baseline of income it was time to put our foot on the gas and try a strategy of resourcing ahead of anticipated growth.

However, before throwing ourselves in to a hiring frenzy I decided to first understand why the team who work here bother to show up each day and give it their all. If I was to ensure that no shit got in to my ice cream, I would need to understand why our existing ice cream was so good.

Cue two months of soul searching, Googling useful articles on the subject, chatting with friends, family, staff and anybody else who would hear me out. I talked mostly about Why Atlas was founded, and then about the journey we’ve been on since then. After a lot of rummaging around the archives I established our Why which we now proudly show off on our About Us page:

“To create opportunities for clever, creative and passionate people to collaborate so that, together, we use technology to solve business problems and drive innovation.”

All the people who work in Atlas in every single role genuinely give a damn about their work – they are passionate. They care about and collaborate with their team and our customers.  Because they care, the team can solve some pretty frightful business problems for our customers by using our tool of choice – technology! It all sounds so obvious, and because it sounds obvious it’s clear that this is a genuine Why and not some made up marketing drivel.

Having a Why is great. It helps me articulate to the existing members of the team what I care about, what Atlas cares about, and the type of people we love to work with. Equally, it tells all of us what we are not – for example – I know that we have financial growth targets but meeting these targets is not the reason I get out of bed each day.  I suspect most of the team don’t hop out of bed on a Monday morning and consider our balance sheet, and neither do I.

Having a Why is also insanely useful for interviewing candidates for Atlas. If I share our Why and an interesting discussion ensues that’s a great sign. If I share our Why and the candidate dismisses it, we might not be such a great fit.

When I articulate our Why and the journey we’ve been on to understand it, what I’m actually doing is selling them on our business and the people in it. The right candidate for Atlas naturally wants to be a part of our Why because they understand it and in some way they see it reflected in their personal Why.

This means that any candidate with the necessary amount of technical competence can in a short interview truly understand the pathway Atlas is on, and in that instant understand if they wish to join us on our journey.

Core values – the cornerstones that assist us in pursuing our Why

A Why is fantastic and in some ways life changing but it doesn’t offer enough detail around what we expect from staff on a day to day basis. We might all align with the same Why, but how we go about achieving it might not be. As an extreme example, one team member might feel that they can break the law to pursue our Why, when clearly, that’s not acceptable.

So to add this level of detail, we set down some core values that I felt had been organically curated in the  team but not properly defined. We chose 10 principles that we called our core values, things we expect of everybody, without question.  Ten was a nice round number but it was also just the number that came to us – there could just have easily have been 5, or 15.  We ultimately settled on:

  1. Let go of the past and make the most of the future.
  2. Always tell the truth – we want to hear bad news sooner rather than later.
  3. The highest level of integrity is expected. When in doubt, ask.
  4. Everyone washes cups.
  5. Be professional in your style, speech and follow up.
  6. Listen to the customer. They almost always ‘get it’.
  7. Create win/win relationships with our partners.
  8. Look out for each other. Sharing information is a good thing.
  9. Don’t take yourself too seriously.
  10. Have fun, otherwise it’s not worth it.

My personal favourites are core values 4 and 10 but they’re all very dear to me.  The core values are also presented proudly presented on the careers page of the Atlas website.

Was it worth it?

We established our Why and Core Values in August 2018, and since then have been on a bit of a hiring spree.

It’s a super easy win for us to identify a candidate who has truly thought about working at Atlas to a level of detail because they will inevitably mention Atlas’ Why and/or our core values during the interview.

In fact, not only have publishing our Why and Core Values been of use for candidates we have interviewed, but I dare say these values have actually attracted candidates to apply for roles. At least three candidates that I’m aware of have mentioned our core values in their covering letter when applying for a position published on Atlas’s careers page.

I can honestly say that the Why and Core Values provided a common understanding of what is expected of all existing team members and gave candidates interested in the possibility of working for Atlas a true measure of what we care about.

I’m delighted with the hires we’ve made and it delights me that they, and our our existing team members, truly understand why they get out of bed on a Monday morning.

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Artificial deadlines for the win

When I’m under pressure I produce some of my best work. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the amount of pressure I’m under, and my ability to remove noise from my brain and see a clear path through to a desired end result. It is useful to understand this brain trait and apply it in scenarios when I might otherwise not be as focused as I would like.

So it made an awful lot of sense that I would thrive in a startup environment.  When I started my first business Atlas, a software house, I was under pressure to get everything done yesterday so that my co-founder and I could earn a living and stop eating into our modest savings. I was wearing dozens of hats including sales person, developer, bookkeeper, admin, and chief tea maker and I thrived.  When times got tough I simply increased the number of hours I worked in order to stay on top of everything but the focus was always there (note: I’m not saying I was working efficiently what with all the context switching, but I definitely made progress through brute force and determination).

Slowly, without noticing, the pressure and buzz of the startup that we had created started to subside, and I found myself being able to think and plan a month ahead, then three months ahead, and then a year ahead.  We hired staff to take the admin and minutiae of running the business away from me and slowly but surely the noise crept back in as the day to day pressure receded.  I effectively took the approach of firing myself from as many roles in the business as possible.  At the point where I was no longer permitted access to our source code repository I felt about as welcome as a hedgehog at a bouncy castle party, and started to miss the pressure that drove me forward in our earlier years.  It became harder to focus, and I could find myself leaving the office not feeling like I had achieved much at all.

Then a couple of  years ago on New Years Eve a friend of mine who had been thinking about moving back to Canada decided he could no longer put it off and booked one way tickets for July that year. He was committed, and had a fixed deadline of seven months that was an immovable object, and therefore all planning would have to work backwards from the date of the flight. I didn’t realise at the time but what he had done was created an artificial deadline which forced him to see something through.

I decided recently that this was a technique I could benefit from, and so created my own artificial deadline by booking flights to Barcelona (more on this here) where I would spend a month with my family living in a different city and remote working. Since setting this immovable date my output has increased exponentially. Now everything I do revolves around the deadline, and my focus is back as I ensure that the projects we’re working on and in particular my own products are in a state of readiness for my departure.

I think this is a useful technique to use, and it doesn’t necessarily have to involve leaving the country! For example, rather than spending the next few months working on that app in your spare time, how about booking a demonstration with some potential customers in 4 weeks’ time. You’ll be amazed how you can suddenly move mountains in order to ensure that you don’t embarrass yourself on the day.

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Taking a month away from my business

Last year I had a child, a boy to be precise. His name is Eli and he has changed my life.  “No shit”, was the response of most people I told this fact to. Well quite, but what was really interesting, is that he actually changed my entire outlook on running my businesses in a way that I hadn’t managed in the seven years prior to his arrival.

This particular insight came about as a result of being forced to take time off from work. Not the kind of time off where you still check your e-mails at least one a day when your partner isn’t looking. This was actual proper time off, and I was terrified. The problem was that I had been managing the business up until this point the hard way…I was attempting to micro-manage at a large scale. I was involved in pretty much every client project our software house was undertaking, I was product manager for both of our products Fundipedia and Staff Squared and that’s before I got to the work involved in managing and developing staff and driving the company forward. The arrangement was unsustainable, but old habits die hard and Satan himself would be handing out ice cream in hell before I released my deathly grip on the business.

So back to the time off…

Here in the UK when your kiddy is born it is customary (and a legal right, no less) that Dad gets Paternity leave. This is two weeks to allow a poor unsuspecting souls to reacclimatise to their new lives. For me, it was the first time I genuinely felt like I could ask my team to cover my back, and run the business as they saw fit.  I would be un-contactable, and so they were to make decisions as they saw fit and that was the end of it. So the boy was born, and I was off, properly off.  I played out my fatherly duties over those two weeks, and fully expected to return to an actual war zone. But no, I came back and the business was running almost better than I had left it. My managers felt empowered, and had taken the business by horns and ran it beautifully. Our clients were happy, and there had been no major disasters in my absence. If I’m completely honest, I was disappointed – the realisation that your business is all grown up and can handle itself is just as difficult as letting go in the first place.

Since my return to work being armed with the knowledge that I’m not actually required on a day to day basis to keep my company afloat I’ve done what any normal person would do and decided to go away again, but this time for a month and I’ll be residing in another country altogether.  I’m spending all of March in Barcelona, and the bonus is that not only does this force my team to get on with it, there are a number of additional positive side effects:

  • Physical distance from my business gives me the space I need to focus on our products which are my priority
  • I suffer from incredibly bad hayfever to the point where it’s debilitating. I’m hoping a month out of the UK when pollen is starting to rear its ugly head again will help keep the worst of the symptoms at bay
  • I get to spend a month of quality time with my kiddy when he’s starting to get really interesting (he’ll be 8 months old by then). I’ll be speaking to him mainly in Spanish (thanks DuoLingo!) the entire time we’re out there, I’ve no idea if he’ll hold on to any of the words I use but my aim is to raise him to be bilingual so this is a good place to start
  • My ultimate aim is to leave the UK and live out the rest of my life with my family abroad, so this is a test in a controlled environment to give this a try

I’ll be keeping a log of how I get on using this blog, plotting the highs and lows and any problems I encounter trying to manage a software house from afar. I’ll probably tweet more often too, so feel free to follow me if you’re interested in this little experiment.

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