danieltenner.com

Startups, company culture, technology, writing and life

On my way to work, Ep 10 – Shares and ownership

Somehow I forgot to hit upload yesterday, so this is a day old. And today, after the Badminton yesterday, I had no energy to have any thoughts this morning, other than how much my muscles hurt! So nothing for today.

Summary:

  • Shares are an interesting thing. In the startup scene, it’s tempting to always give out shares to employees. In Silicon Valley, for example, you probably can’t get away with running a startup and not giving shares.
  • It’s important not to just copy this model and apply it outside. In SV, people have a clear understanding and belief that the business could be worth a billion dollars, and they feel motivated to work towards that objective and “get rich”. And there’s a chance they might be right.
  • Outside of SV, the thinking is that you want to make people feel empowered, that they’re owners of the business, etc. If they’re deep in the startup scene that may well work, though if they’re smart and skeptical they will see that the chances that this works are very slim. People will naturally be more skeptical of that “dream”.
  • So the goal of making people feel like they’re owners of the business is not so clearly achieved by giving out shares.
  • I’ve asked people at events, would they feel they’re owners of the business with 0.1% of the business? No one raised their hand. Same for 1%, 5%, 10%… it’s only at 20% that people start to feel they “own” the business. You can’t afford many employees at that rate!
  • Shares are treated as a shortcut to make people think they own the business, but doesn’t really work outside of SV.
  • But there are other methods. You can make people feel that they are in control of the business, that they are able to make decisions, etc, without giving them shares.
  • Instead of using the shares shortcut, focus on learning to build a company where people really do feel that it’s their business, via transparency, responsibility, open cultures, etc, then the shares can be a validation of that.

On my way to work, Ep 9 – Maturity

Summary:

  • Concept of company maturity.
  • Most founders, when they start a company, start it because they see some kind of economical opportunity, a way to make money for themselves, and a business is a sensible way to structure this.
  • As the opportunity grows, business grows, they will bring other people in, and structure the business accordingly – but at that point it’s still about making money for the founders/shareholders.
  • Such a strong idea, that it’s been enshrined in law in some parts of the world.
  • But there is another step to take: to think of the business not just as a money-making operation, but as something that has a life of its own.
  • Laloux mentions that if you really think of the company as a living organisation, the idea of “ownership” starts to feel alien.
  • Ownership is still relevant, but less clear, more ambiguous.
  • This is a transformation we’re going through in GrantTree at the moment.
  • GrantTree hasn’t been about making money for Paulina and I for quite a while now, but it’s starting to be more clear, more explicit, that this company needs to include all the people who work there in determining its direction. This can’t happen without the input of the people who will be driving it there.
  • This has been happening for example in a currently ongoing discussion in the company about what “fair pay” is.
  • In most small businesses, there is this huge tension between the owners/shareholders and the people running/working in the company. The owners are trying to minimise the pay, the people working there are trying to maximise it. This causes a never-ending tug-of-war.
  • If you look at the way more mature companies function, they should not be about a constant conflict between those two sides, but about everyone working together to try and figure out how we can make the most out of this business together.
  • Very difficult idea to get across. I probably still need to spend some time thinking about. I do find it fascinating though, so I thought I’d share it.
  • Do you have any thoughts, anything else you think I should talk about? Please let me know via Twitter, email or otherwise!

Female Founder Stories

Here’s a constructive addition to the “feminism in tech” issue – a sizeable collection of in-depth interviews of female founders, announced here by Jessica Livingston.

Some interesting extracts from the “Was being female either an advantage or disadvantage in working on your startup?” question:

Danielle Morill:

I know that I care a lot of about nurturing people and making them feel how important they are through care and thoughtfulness, and so I have worked very hard on things like HR and diversity early on. I’m hesitant to attribute that to my gender, though my inclination to be more nurturing might start there.

One big benefit of being female is that a lot more women apply to work for us. I’ve been told it is a relief not to be the first woman on a team. We have 6 women other than myself, 2 of them are in engineering and I believe we will hire many more. Women are still less than 10% of the total applicant pool for technical jobs, even with this “advantage”.

Even a startup founded by a single female founder has trouble hiring women. No surprise that others also struggle.

Adora Cheung:

It may be 2014 but people still make decisions with all sorts of biases, including gender and race.

There’s been a lot of speculation on how this affects fundraising. I’ve had both easy and tough times with this. It’s really hard to tease out if being female was part of it. I do think as your business gets really hot, if it did matter, it starts to matter much less.

Being female, I think I’m more cognizant of creating a work environment that’s inviting to all sorts of people. Homejoy certainly abides by the no-asshole policy and we’ve avoided the whole arrogant, bro-ish culture that Silicon Valley unfortunately has gotten to be known for. Part of new employee orientation is to clean at least one home, and so that probably self-filters out these types of people.

Ultimately, you shouldn’t have to deal with sexism or racism. While there’s movement to weed out these bad, mostly low tier players, it’ll be a while before all players get over their own subtle biases. However, it’s not something you, as a female entrepreneur building a company right this moment, can control and you certainly shouldn’t use this as a crutch or excuse for failure. If you have a great idea and work really, really hard, you will find good investors and good partners to work with. Together we can build a quorum, smash all biases once and for all, and prove that female founders can build and run great companies.

Katelyn Gleason:

I have a tendency to see everything through an optimistic lens, so I like to believe that being a young driven woman may have actually helped me in the YC interview process. It certainly helped me stand out. It continues to help me stand out when hiring, closing deals, and fundraising.

I’d like to add this TEDx talk from my wife and cofounder, Paulina Sygulska, to the discussion:

On my way to work, Ep 8 – Excuses

A very short episode, today, but the topic is not unimportant.

Summary:

  • When it comes to culture, it’s always possible to make excuses.
  • Like dieting, you can always find reasons to do or not to do something, research going both ways.
  • Much of it is driven by beliefs, but even the data can go both ways (see Douglas McGregor Theory X and Theory Y1).
  • So the most important factor in driving your culture is who you are and how much you grow personally.
  • Examples of excuses: transparency. There are many companies operating with total salary transparency. And yet despite that you will find very well meaning, experienced, connected, respectable people to tell you that it can’t possibly work, you’ll have trouble with it, etc.
  • The only way to get past all these people telling you what you’re doing is wrong, is to actually believe in the things you want to do, and give them a try anyway.
  • If you don’t believe in open culture, transparency, etc, you will find an endless series of excuses for why it can’t be implemented.
  • It takes a fairly large amount of self-belief to ignore these excuses and power on. For that to work, you have to actually believe in what you’re preaching.

  1. The key insight of which is not a comparison of Theory X and Theory Y, but the striking realisation that whatever set of assumptions you start with, will drive the kind of data you find – i.e. you will find data to support your assumptions when it comes to how people work, so choosing your assumptions is more important than gathering data to confirm/deny those assumptions!

On my way to work, Ep 7 – Why and how

On my way to work, Ep 6 – Sources of advice

In which I examine the different places where you can get advice about culture, and how they compare. Note to self: be more upbeat/energetic. May involve additional coffee, or perhaps transcranial Direct Current Stimulation.

Work and life, balance and imbalance

What does work/life balance mean to you? Most likely, it means something different to what it means to me.

There are many ways to define work and life, and the balance between the two, but I’m going to focus on two, that I’ll label, ungenerously to one of them, the “old way” and the “new way”1.

The old way

In the old way, work and life are clearly distinct, as night and day. Work is a curse (sometimes biblical), the time you spend toiling and sweating and bleeding to earn a living, and life is a blessing, the thing you work for, which must be distinct from work and much better than work, to justify all the toiling and sweating and bleeding.

You work (an activity that by definition you do not enjoy most of the time) to earn money, that you then spend on things that you do enjoy, during your “life” time. The work is an unfortunate necessity, something that you would avoid if you could. The ideal life is the infinite holiday. If you had millions of dollars instead of thousands, in this mental framework, you would probably go on an extended holiday, until you’re either ruined by unfortunate circumstances or you die.

This is still the dominant paradigm, and one that drives most of our discussions of work/life balance. In fact, the very term “work/life balance” implies belief in this old way of defining work and life. Whenever you say “work/life balance”, you imply to your subconscious that you believe in these two concepts of work and life and their contrast and the need to balance them.

How to balance them? Well, with the definition of work as something unpleasant and life as something pleasant, obviously work should be minimised and life maximised. So we have fixed working hours, 40 hours a week, then 35, then 30. We scrupulously “leave our work behind” when we go home. We take holidays where we make sure to disconnect. We look at people who work longer hours, take their work home and work on holiday as workaholics – a clearly, obviously pejorative term. Something to be avoided.

The new way

The new way of talking about work and life is from the point of view of passionate people doing work they care about deeply. The traditional view here is that only artists and vocational people like charity workers, priests or doctors can do that, but today’s reality is that many people engaged in a wide range of jobs can and do feel passionate about their work, and find personal accomplishment and fulfilment in them.

One obvious case of the passionate worker is the entrepreneur, but they are rare so let’s leave them aside. Another is people who work in open cultures, or at least in jobs that somehow have some mysterious characteristics like a sense of purpose and challenge and autonomy.

People in these kinds of jobs can frequently feel they are in an awkward place, because they feel that they enjoy working hard, but then the “old way” of thinking tells them that they’re working too hard. Adopting the language of the old way, they might end up “realising” that they’re workaholics and try to cut back, or go on holiday and deliberately disconnect from everything to try and recover some “work/life balance”.

The sad thing about this is that it is wrong and actually makes the passionate person’s life worse, not better. Being passionate about your work is not a curse, it’s a blessing. We can argue all year long about what the meaning of life is, and each person can and needs to come up with their own answer, but there is no argument that achieving a state of flow is a desirable thing. Being passionate about your work leads to being in a state of flow more often.

How tragic, then, when definitions imagined by people who worked in a state of pain rise up out of your subconscious to say, effectively, “hey, you shouldn’t spend that much time in a state of flow, you’re a workaholic with no work/life balance!” An exaggerated view of that is akin to interrupting Leonardo in the middle of painting the Mona Lisa to tell him he’s done his eight hours and needs to go home now.2

This conflict between working according to the new way but letting your thinking err along the old way is not helpful, and in my opinion should be avoided. I propose a new way of thinking about work/life balance, in terms of stages of work, with a clear, opinionated scale from worse to better. Each stage has different ways of thinking about work/life balance.

The new ladder of work

Level 1: Slavery

Level 1 - Slavery

Level 1 – Slavery

On the bottom of the ladder, I would like to put slavery – by which I do not mean wage slavery, but actual, real slavery. There is still an awful lot of this in the world. Some countries still have institutionalised slavery, and some high-profile international organisations do not bat an eyelid at using slavery to serve their goals, and most of humanity through most of history has operated at this level, sadly. As a slave with no control over your life, we can perhaps miraculously lift ourselves up to a higher level (like Joseph in the Biblical story), but most, by far, will not. The concept of work/life balance is irrelevant here: we have no life as a slave, our life belongs to our master.

Level 2: Survival

Level 2 - Survival

Level 2 – Survival

One level above, I would put the type of work that one does to ensure survival (of oneself or of one’s family). Throughout the industrial revolution, and still in many countries in Asia in industries such as textiles or manufacturing, much of the work is at this level. This is barely above slavery, the only difference being that we have a notional choice of working under equally bad conditions somewhere else. Work/life balance as a concept becomes theoretically important but is mostly out of our reach. We work (serve the curse) as much as we humanly can, and the rest of the time is a temporary interval between stretches of work. Much of the social progress of the industrial revolution was aimed at allowing people working at this level to live humane lives, and lifted much of the western world’s population to at least level 3.

Level 3: Balance

Level 3 - Balance

Level 3 – Balance

This is the level where the concept of work/life balance really has full meaning, and where most people are operating. In this perspective, work is undesirable but not oppressive. We have choice, so long as the economy is doing alright and our skills are in demand. We can choose to work reasonable working hours. We have control over the line between work and life. This is the old way done right. In this context, the concept of work/life balance is a good thing and it is important to balance the two, to stay in control of where that line shifts.

Level 4: Acceleration

Level 4 - Acceleration

Level 4 – Acceleration

Some fortunate people operating at level 3 may find that some aspects of their jobs are more engaging than others, and get caught up in those aspects from time to time. Another way to put it is that we may have work that is largely undesirable, that would not be worth doing if we weren’t paid for it, but there are some aspects of that work that put us in a state of flow, where we lose track of time and find ourselves working till silly hours or thinking about work on holiday, etc. This is where the level 3 way of thinking holds us back, by suggesting that this is a symptom of an out of control work/life balance. At this stage, the concept of work/life balance still makes sense overall, but it starts to lose its usefulness, and I think this is the stage where we must be careful not to let it hold us back from progressing to level 5.

Because at level 4, we start to get a glimpse of what life could be at level 5, since we begin to find out which activities are both productive (i.e. things society rewards with money) and put us in a state of flow (i.e. things we deeply enjoy doing for their own sake).

Level 5: Flow

Level 5 - Flow

Level 5 – Flow

Once we discover which activities we can do, which put us in a state of flow but are rewarded by society (i.e. are paid well enough), we have the option to start rebuilding our work (or finding another job or career) where we can spend most of our time doing the things we love and are passionate about. Of course, there are always going to be some unpleasant bits to any job, but because we see the bigger picture of what we’re doing (flow is impossible without a sense of purpose), we handle them without much effort, to get back to the bits we enjoy.

At this level, work/life balance makes no sense whatsoever. You wouldn’t put a time limit on flow any more than you’d put a time limit on any other enjoyable activity. Keep doing it as long as it’s fun! When it’s no longer fun, switch to another fun and productive thing. And so on, endlessly.

I don’t think it is possible to reach this level without letting go of the concept of work opposed to life, prevalent in level 3 thinking. A career/life where you spend most of your time in a state of flow is highly desirable, but it is not one we can reach while we meter out our efforts and keep thinking of work as something to be avoided.

A symptom of this state, in my opinion, is that we are constantly working: at home, during hobbies, on holiday, even while asleep! But much of that work is subconscious, thinking about how to do things even better or which things to do, rather than sitting down in front of a computer and “working”. The work is then just the natural outlet of the thinking, much like an artist’s work.

Whilst the shift from level 3 to 4 can happen accidentally without intention, the shift to level 5 only occurs if we really seek out this new way of working, which is why it’s important to embrace it rather than fight it.

Some final notes

There are a million objections to the ideas above. Some obvious ones are “what about if I have children?” or “what if my job sucks? no one could possibly enjoy my job!”. I believe that a careful reading of the article combined with some thinking will present answers to those objections though. Have a think before you disagree.

In conclusion

Life and work need not and should not be in opposition. When they are in harmony, both get better. But if you let the oppositional thinking of work vs life drive your thinking, it will impair your ability to progress from level 3 to level 5.

Don’t let old assumptions determine how you live your life today. Think for yourself about what makes sense for you.


  1. Obviously, this is an artificial dichotomy and there is a whole continuum of definitions between the two, and there are of course other dimensions to the definition that I’m not exploring here! But for the sake of argument…

  2. Another historical distortion is the concept that to matter in this way, work must be of great cultural or societal import. Actually, to put you in that same state of flow, work must simply matter greatly to you personally.

On my way to work, Ep 5 – Distortions and intrinsic motivation

The book mentioned in this episode is:

On my way to work, Ep 4 – Steal those ideas! (and a reading list)

Some books mentioned on this videocast:

Summary:

  • Originality is often praised for its own sake. However, when it comes to things like culture, being original should be treated with caution. Most of the problems you’ve tried to solve have likely been solved somewhere else.
  • Trying to reinvent the wheel for every problem is not the best idea…
  • There’s a danger on the other side: cargo-culting. That’s when you take an idea/practice/etc that you’ve seen done somewhere else and just copy it wholesale without understanding how it works and what makes it tick.
  • Very dangerous for culture stuff, because it looks fake. For example, you might copy 121 meetings – but without understanding why they’re there, people will feel the meetings are just some kind of pointless formality and won’t care.
  • It’s important, when you copy things, to fully understand them, but it’s also important not to let yourself think you can’t copy things.
  • For me, the sources that work the best tends to be books. Here’s a reading list (see above).
  • First, the Semco books. They’re not very well written, but they’re very inspirational, written by Ricardo Semler, CEO of Semco. He tells a lot of stories about what happened, from the trenches.
  • Tony Hsieh’s book is very different, more startuppy, but written by someone who first built a business where he didn’t pay attention to culture, then realised he really cared about culture, then built a whole new business all around culture.
  • Reinventing organizations is interesting because first of all it lays out a framework that can be used to talk about open organisations (fairly useful), but also looks at a dozen open organisations and extracts best practices from them. It’s a gold mine for copying, full of ideas to steal.
  • Joy at Work is also a CEO first-hand account, of one of the case studies in Reinventing Organizations. An in-depth, first-person view of one of the orgs covered, gives you a better perspective on the book.

On my way to work, Ep 3 – Amazon ethics

Today’s rain-drenched thoughts on the topic of this open letter/lawsuit, which was doing the rounds yesterday, and its relation to open cultures.

Note to self: next time have an umbrella, and pay better attention to the framing! On the good side, I now have some lovely shots of my chin, and a wonderful rain-halo effect going as well.

Summary:

  • It’s raining. Really. I was drenched by the time this finished. And there was a cool halo effect.
  • Thoughts on the Amazon announcement…
  • An Amazon employee was mistreated by their manager, had their moved blocked by retroactive “backdated performance feedback”, was seriously penalised for raising important issues about a client being overcharged by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • Amazon manager wanted to spin it into a positive, even though the code for the promotion was totally broken.
  • Interesting to me: Amazon is strange to me, because it’s clearly highly successful, but very, very top-down, hierarchical. Every bit of info that comes out shows that Amazon is a company that’s very centralised around Jeff Bezos.
  • So my first thought was: well, this doesn’t surprise me very much! It seems like an inescapable result of a strong, secretive top-down culture that there will be bad top-down decisions hiding stuff.
  • In an open culture, if people make decisions against the values of the company, this is very visible and obvious quite quickly. Either you deal with that decision, work through the problem, or it is obvious that the values are just lip service.
  • In a secretive company like Amazon, it’s very easy to hide things under the carpet, punish people for making information flow. So when there’s a gap between the values of the company and its behaviour, it can just be hidden. The discord does not become widespread in the company. So the values can appear to persist even though they’re not being followed.
  • Obviously this can happen in open cultures too. In AES’s case, for example, they had some ethics/transparency issues with one plant. At a certain scale, this becomes inevitable. But what is not inevitable is how it is covered up. The fact there was buy-in all the way to the top for defrauding a major customer of Amazon, however, would not happen in an open culture.
  • Lack of transparency is always going to lead to this sort of stuff. Having the transparency to prevent this sort of stuff happening will naturally lead to other features of open cultures.
« Older posts

© 2014 danieltenner.com

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑