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Six steps to open cultures

Leo Widrich, cofounder of Buffer, shares, via this Zapiers article by Fred Bauters, six steps to getting to an open culture. In summary:

  1. Check yourself: are you personally transparent?
  2. Be sure other company values are in place
  3. Hire with transparency in mind
  4. Start slow and steady
  5. Equip yourself with the tools for transparency
  6. Remind yourself: transparency is not for everyone

The whole article is packed with insight and well worth a thorough read. The only point I disagree with is number 2. I think that if you are the right sort of person to run an open culture (i.e. your personal rather than company values are in place), and you stick to transparency as a company policy, then the rest will follow. The reason why I believe that is because it is what happened at GrantTree.

As a company, we didn’t have our values explicitly described for a long time, but both Paulina (my cofounder) and myself were clear on our personal values of respect for people, personal growth, generosity and, most importantly, transparency. And it’s transparency that enabled us to create a culture which, while not open yet, was open enough for our team to start pointing out where the company wasn’t aligned with our own values1.

There were many challenges to our culture’s evolution along the way, and many, many chances to compromise, but the uncompromising approach to transparency ended up being one of the key drivers that kept us going in the right direction through all these changes, because of the way it tends to infect everything around it and force it to become more transparent.

So, my deviation from Leo’s advice would be that even if your company values aren’t quite sorted out (which will certainly be the case at the very beginning), sticking to transparency through thick and thin will do a lot to help you keep the culture evolving in the right direction.

Just make sure you yourself are committed – because ultimately, whatever you truly believe will come through in your actions and your choices when faced with challenges. As I’ve argued before, you can’t hide from yourself.

  1. A watershed moment was when, during a 121, I was told by Ellie, one of our Client Managers, that the motivational system that I’d designed as insulting and infantilising

The fungible worker – or not

Here‘s an interesting article by Jeff Lonsdale about what he calls the “fungible worker”. Jeff examines some of the old arguments about whether technology spells the end of the human worker, whether it will drive everyone out of work, etc. He dismisses the classic Luddite argument and instead lands on an interesting point:

Amazon can quickly train employees as well as track them to make sure they are not underperforming. There is a smaller difference between one employee and their potential replacement. If an employee decides to leave their replacement is guided by technology that makes the new worker’s productivity very close to that of a good worker.

Before these technological advancements, workers enjoyed mini-monopolies. The warehouse worker couldn’t be easily replaced because their replacement might be way less efficient as they learned the layout of their workplace. As technology more directly guides low and mid skill workers in their jobs the workers are losing their mini-monopolies. Workers don’t need job specific experience to be hired so the supply of workers available to every technology guided job has increased. A higher supply leads to a lower price (the price of a worker is their wage). After full employment is reached the general wage level may increase for low skilled workers, but for now the impact of the Great Factor Price Equalization and the More Fungible Worker are suppressing the wages of middle and lower class developed world workers.

It’s actually quite hard to disagree with this point, and in fact I won’t – because I believe it’s true. Certain kinds of applications of technology turn human beings into replaceable, indistinguishable cogs and levers and wheels and bolts in the name of efficiency above all things.

Now, I’m a big fan of efficiency. Huge fan. I love being able to buy stuff on Amazon for cheap and getting it delivered the next day. Yay for efficiency.

However, I think there’s all sorts of ways to measure efficiency. Which efficiency are we talking about anyway? The efficiency of providing the service is the obvious one. How about the efficiency of use of natural resources? Debatable, off topic for this article, perhaps. Efficiency of fulfilling the right orders, those that add the most value to humanity, instead of just fulfilling every online shopping spree no matter how useless, selling whatever the hell is in demand right now no matter whether it’s actually useful or even downright dangerous? We’re starting to get somewhere.

How about the efficiency of the human capital being put at work – is it really delivering its highest potential value to the rest of humanity? Er, no. A human turned into a robot that follows instructions and turned into a fully replaceable piece of a large and complex logistical machinery is definitely not delivering on his or her potential.

Ultimately, I think that situations like Amazon are temporary. Eventually, all low-skilled jobs will be replaced with automated machinery1. In the meantime, however, while I see that “fungible workers” are inevitable for the time being, I’d like to propose, to entrepreneurs, managers, and other people in charge of creating or managing such jobs, a different philosophy of efficiency:

Aim to improve the efficiency of how the potential of humans is being deployed at work.

If you do that, you’ll probably build a different business. You’ll certainly do so – a business whose fundamental principles include enabling every person within it to develop to their full potential will not end up looking like Amazon. In this business, the very concept of fungible workers will be bizarre and alien. But such a business will  be far more efficient (in the sense of reduced waste and overheads, as well as in the human potential efficiency) than Amazon can ever dream of being, and the tradeoffs of shop-floor efficiency vs. human potential efficiency may well turn out to be surprisingly tilted to the latter side.

  1. And then we’re going to have to decide, as a society, that low-skilled people still deserve to have a good life even if there’s no work for them. If we don’t figure out how to decide that, the next step is probably World War III.

Charlie Hebdo: A victory



On this glorious first week of the year, it is worth considering who it is that won the day yesterday, in the 11e Arrondissement in France, so that we may stop them from winning the days and weeks and months and years and decades ahead, or at the very least not join them in their orgiastic banquet, which, rubbing their hands with a broad, satisfied grin, they are already making ready for.

For this sombre celebration, I will borrow the words of a great Author, Romain Gary, who spent his life fighting this battle, as a self-described “champion of the world”, and described these old enemies of humanity in 1962.

Meet the monkey gods:

First comes Totoche, the god of Stupidity, with his scarlet monkey’s behind, the swollen head of a doctrinaire and a passionate love for abstractions; he’s always been the Germans’ pet, but today he prospers almost everywhere, always ready to oblige; he is now devoting himself more and more to pure research and technology, and can be seen frequently grinning over the shoulders of our scientists; with each nuclear explosion his grin gets wider and wider and his shadow looms larger over the earth; his favourite trick is to hide his stupidity under the guise of scientific genius, and to enlist support among our great men to ensure our own destruction.

Then there is Merzavka, the god of Absolute Truth and Total Righteousness, the lord of all true believers and bigots; whip in hand, a Cossack’s fur cap over one eye, he stands knee-deep in a heap of corpses, the eldest of our lords and masters, since time immemorial the most respected and obeyed; since the dawn of history he had us killed, tortured and oppressed in the name of Absolute Truth, Religious Truth, Political Truth, Moral Truth; always with a capital T raised high above our heads, like a scaffold. One half of the human race obsequiously licks his boots, and this causes him immense amusement, for well he knows that there is no such thing as absolute truth, the oldest trick to goad us into slavery or to drive us at each other’s throats, and even as I write these words, I can hear above the barking of the seals and the cries of the cormorants the sound of his triumphant laughter rolling toward me from the other end of the earth, so loud that even my brother the ocean cannot raise his voice above it.

Then there is Filoche, the god of Mediocrity, full of bilious scorn and rabid prejudice, of hatred and petulance, screaming at the top of his voice: “You dirty Jew! You nigger! Jap! Down with the Yankees! Kill the yellow rats! Wipe out capitalists! Imperialists! Communists!” – lover of holy wars, a Great Inquisitor, who is always there to pull the rope at a lynching, to command a firing squad, and the most eagerly listened to; he is to be found in every political camp, from right to left, lurking behind every cause, behind every ideal, always present, rubbing his hands whenever a dream of human dignity is stamped into the mud.

Yesterday, then, was clearly a resounding victory for Filoche (with some help from his brother Merzavka). And as the events of the coming weeks unfold, other champions of the world might remember that no matter whether the “terrorists” are caught, whether or not this law or that law is passed or rejected, whatever glorious or vile articles, comments, tweets and words of wit are written or spoken in response, whether anyone distinguishes themselves with their humanity or lack thereof in these sad circumstances, the only one who has won this day is the monkey god Filoche, who has succeeded in sullying all of us, wherever we are, whatever we do, whatever we dream, whatever we achieve, whatever we strive for.

This is the genius of the beast in us: when it wins, everyone loses, just as much those who think they won the day as those who feel hurt and aggrieved. Its genius is to lower what is good and worthwhile and human in all of us without distinction, to throw mud and shit into the face of humanity wherever it stands, and then sit back and watch as we do its work of rubbing it on ourselves.

What to do then? Don’t join the monkey gods.

Realise that reactions of hatred, however justified, however rationalised, only consolidate Filoche’s victory (and perhaps call out to his brother Totoche to join the fun). This is true whichever “side” you’re on. The beast is on all sides and in all of us. Don’t feed it, at least within you and those around you.

Do not join the ranks of their followers on all political, religious and ideological sides.

Continue to be, do, dream, achieve and strive, and live, a champion of the world – that is also within you, along with the beast.

On my way to work, Ep 12 – Your beliefs have power


  • This is almost a boring, clichéed, cheesy idea these days, that your beliefs have power. But it’s a powerful idea.
  • Obviously beliefs don’t drive everything. If you get hit by a bus or run over by a train, no matter how much you may believe in your eventual success, you’re probably not going to make it. Luck drives our lives as well.
  • But beliefs drive actions, not just the actions you take but also the options you see.
  • If you see everything as black, pointless, your actions will reflect that. You’re going to create a world around you that is pointless, has no substance to it, etc.
  • If you believe that people are worthwhile, generous, worth putting energy into, that’ll drive your actions too. The world, people around you, respond to that.
  • If you want to have the greatest impact on the culture of the company (no matter where you are in that company) the highest point of leverage where you can make changes is yourself.
  • Like all good ideas, this is nothing new.
  • The point of this is just to realise that, quite the opposite from feeling powerless about the world around you, you have enormous power to shape the world around you by the beliefs you apply to it.
  • Another converse of that thought is the idea that if you do see the world as drab and featureless and full of blame and things that are trying to hurt you, it’s all inside of you. Maybe the world has done something that you perceived as a trigger, that you thought justified you in feeling a certain way, but in the end the bit you can choose, you have power over, is your reaction. This is mentioned in Seven Habits, via a therapist called Victor Frankl, who survived the death camps and even in that environment, realised that although he could not control the environment, he could control how he reacted to the environment he was in.
  • That’s a very inspiring thought: if you’re feeling bad, you have the power to shape your perception of the world, and that perception then shapes how the world actually is. Your thoughts, which you have enormous control over, change everything. You have the power.
  • Whatever you think, you can make happen. Whatever you want, you can be.
  • I’d also like to take a minute to rant against people who take this “Law of Attraction” to the extreme. Being hit by a bus will seriously impact your ability to “achieve your dreams”.
  • You can’t change everything about the world. No matter how much you believe you’re going to grow back a limb that you’ve lost, it’s not going to grow back. People who discover this Law of Attraction (and unfortunately that includes many writers), like the author of the Secret, or Think and Grow Rich, that they present it as the one idea that solves everything, perhaps as a sales trick.
  • That’s a terribly insulting perspective to have to all the people who are in truly dire situations and do not have the opportunities we have around us. When you use this idea, remember that some people do not have all these opportunities available to them.
  • Another inspiring idea: the world we live in is so full of opportunities that the Law of Attraction largely does work for us most of the time. Spare a moment for those for whom it doesn’t.

On my way to work, Ep 11 – Sleep is when you work with your eyes closed


  • There’s a saying which I always find interesting: “Sleep is when you work with your eyes closed”.
  • Doesn’t mean that you’re supposed to work while you sleep. It means that while you sleep, there’s a lot of unconscious stuff that happens, connections that get made in your brain. Those connections that get made are very valuable to any business.
  • So to regard sleep or spending time with your kids as “not work” and the time at your desk as “work”, drawing that distinction, is a bit ridiculous when doing complex knowledge work.
  • But there’s a reverse side to that.
  • If you were to present this idea to executives in most companies, you’re going to get some assholes who will take that idea and try to create a culture of being at work all the time, always responding to emails, always available. Which totally misses the point: which is that you get those ideas when you’re not working, not thinking about work, thinking about other things.
  • Another side to that: if you want your people to be considering business ideas and thinking about them, and being willing to engage into that sort of thinking outside of working hours, that requires the right kind of mindset from people, and people won’t behave like that if you’re always pressuring them to think about work. So the side that many people wouldn’t be willing to accept, if you expect people to be willing to spend time outside of work thinking about work, then you can’t give them a hard time regarding what they’re thinking about while in the office.
  • You can’t have the expectation that your people are creative people who really care about their job and want to make a difference 24/7, and give them a hard time if they take a longer lunch break. The two are incompatible.

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.


  • 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


  • 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.


  • 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

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