More than a hundred people from all over Europe, contributing to WordPress. It’s happening right now in Torino. And tomorrow, WordCamp!
In 2010, on one of the most epic road trips of my life, I was passing through Las Vegas and visited Zappos, a year or so after it had been acquired by Amazon. I spent 4 hours visiting headquarters, taking pictures, chatting with executives, and getting the full Zappos experience.
If you have never heard of Zappos, it’s a vibrant company founded by Tony Hsieh. They sell shoes. How boring is that? They have a website, and they sell shoes. However, they did not become popular due to the quality of those shoes. They became popular in our industry for their outstanding corporate culture.
To give a few examples, employees had free food and drinks (excluding Red Bull) available 24/7 at headquarters, a car wash service on weekends, massage sessions at the end of shifts. And surprisingly, for an e-commerce company, employees were not evaluated by sales volume or the number of calls they took during support shifts. Performance was only tied to customer satisfaction, as measured by independent post-sales surveys.
Other companies made headlines for their fancy policies. Apple has the most amazing headquarters on Earth, Facebook offices are also great, and Google was featured in a movie called “The Internship,” which was a comedy mostly about the unusual culture at Googleplex.
My visit at Zappos was a blast, and I raved about it for months and years. At the time, I was working for a startup in Vienna that had recently been sold to a large French corporation. I was so enthusiastically impressed by Zappos that I tried introducing some of their practices. Every experiment failed miserably. My repeated attempts and failures in changing the work practices of my team resulted in a clash with upper management, and I left the company.
In the five years that followed, I discovered through other experiences that free drinks, free food, and unusual methods to measure productivity are the consequence of something deeper — a unique set of values that are at the foundation of outstanding companies. They are like Hawaiian shirts. They make total sense if you live in Maui, but wearing a Hawaiian shirt when you work in a bank does not make you a surfer, and it will probably end in a serious chat with your boss.
A few weeks ago I was in Park City, Utah, meeting 400 coworkers at our annual Grand Meetup, a yearly business retreat where we have the chance to spend a week together under the same roof after 51 weeks scattered all over the world. The Grand Meetup schedule is packed with meetings, chats, work sessions, classes, and fun activities. On the first day, Matt Mullenweg, our Founder and CEO, gave opening remarks in a 15-minute speech. It was not super formal, but the tension during kickoff was strong.
Do you know what I remember from those 15 minutes? “Be nice to each other. Grand Meetup can be intimidating for new Automatticians, make sure you are welcoming. Pick up trash on the floor, and be nice to the wait staff of the resort.”
I knew Matt Mullenweg for years before joining Automattic, and one thing that always struck me about him is his kindness. Many times we shared a dinner table at conferences. Matt is the guy who makes you feel good about yourself because he pours water for other people before drinking himself. He’s the one who opens doors, and says please and thank you with absolute sincerity.
When I joined Automattic, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of my colleagues. The first three weeks of support rotation were challenging, but at any time of the day I only had to ask for help and a bunch of people would come to the rescue. The same is true today, with 200 more people on the payroll.
The foundation of corporate culture is the shadow of the founder. So if you are a founder, pay attention to how you behave, more than your corporate policies. If you are joining a company, do a background check on the founder. It’s unlikely you’ll find a pleasing working environment if you and the founder don’t share core values. Steve Jobs was known as a difficult person to deal with, obsessed with details. Look at Apple now: the shadow of the founder is present in every connector, charger, and icon. Of course, the company changed after Steve Jobs, but the legacy is strong and Apple has a long history of ups and downs.
Things change. But people don’t like change. We like to settle in and get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable. Accept the idea that things need to change and when it’s time, it’s time. Think about life, the most important changes just happen. You get a new job, you get fired, you meet that special person, you get married, you have kids, you have to let someone go. Life and death do not follow a schedule. When it’s time, it’s time. So why would your company wait until next quarter to change? So it better fits your Excel table?
Get over it and learn to embrace change.
When I joined Automattic, there were just over 200 people. Two years later on our 10th anniversary, we crossed the 400 mark. I have personally seen many practices get introduced and dismissed, new teams formed and disbanded, projects shelved and picked up again. It’s a good way to keep things spinning and to stay alert and ready for new challenges. We are in a marathon, not in a sprint.
Since the beginning, the motto at Facebook was: “Move fast and break things”, until they got big. Then it changed to “Move fast with a solid infrastructure.” How easy do you think it was for Mark Zuckerberg to go on stage at F8 and announce the new motto? Deep thoughts were behind that announcement. The company followed him because of the culture he built over time.
A few years ago I worked at a company that hit rough waters. After a summer with limited liquidity and a series of pay cuts, employees were asked to make a difficult decision: voluntarily work half time to avoid layoffs. We were all pretty weary but the spirit was strong, and we agreed to go half time. In addition, the CEO asked us to concentrate our efforts and be at the office from 9 to 13. It was difficult to accept, as a few of us typically got to the office at 10 or 11.
On the first day of this new schedule, we were all on time. Even those not happy about waking up early were at the office at 9 am sharp. Except one. The CEO showed up at 11 am. There was absolute silence when he walked in the door, holding his usual Starbucks latte. After a moment of hesitation, he said: “There was a hell of a traffic today.” Three people, including me, resigned in a matter of weeks. A single act of disrespect broke months and years of trust.
If you want a healthy company culture, lead by example. Every action you take as a founder, more than just words, sets the tone and makes a difference.
Enjoy the video!
I’m going to tell you a story you’ve probably heard before and it goes like this:
You have a friend who has a shop, a restaurant or a yoga studio. He has heard about the wonders of the Internet and one day, he asks you to help him set up a website for his business.
This is how it plays out in the beginning of your career, but the truth is, nothing really changes and soon enough, you have a new client.
It doesn’t matter if you do it as a favour or for money, you are going to pour your heart and soul into this project because you want them to succeed.
So what do you do?
- You install WordPress.
- You find a theme.
- You paste some content.
- You tweak the template here and there.
- You make the client validate the site based on his aesthetic taste.
- You listen to the client’s meaningless feedback.
The result? The site is online but not really making a difference for the business. The client will never be happy with the website and will say things like:
– “Why didn’t you create a Facebook page? Everybody is on Facebook!”
– “Why am I not the first hit on Google?”
– “What do you mean with which keywords? All of them!”
– “That green is not green enough.”
– “Why isn’t it as cool as this other website?” And then proceeds to show you Amazon.com.
I told you before this was a classic scenario and I’m sure that many of you have experienced it at least once.
A Better Approach
In order to succeed we need to change our attitude and our process. We must be mindful to never detach the business goals from the online presence. This happens way too often and it’s a source of frustration for many businesses that try their hand at online channels.
Let’s take a step back, take a pad of paper, a sharp pencil and let’s work old school:
- Define reasonable goals.
- Identify checkpoints and metrics.
- Measure and improve.
First thing’s first – Business sites
Business site are websites designed to support a traditional business. These businesses primarily serve local clients in the area and they can afford investing a little bit of money in online marketing activities.
Define the goal
The first thing you should do when you acquire a new customer is to ask a simple question: “What do you need the website for?”
Let’s try it all together, repeat after me: “What – Do – You – Need – The – Website – For?”
This is where you’ll get the most surprising answers: To get new clients, to get visitors, to save money on advertising, to sell stuff, to have a URL for the business cards, to compete with Facebook or I don’t know, they told me I needed one!
Your first job is to clarify the goal of the website with your client. It won’t be easy, life isn’t easy. Life is simple, not easy, right? So, the first step is to help your client find out what the primary goal of their website is.
Define checkpoints and metrics: The Growth Funnel
The Growth Funnel is a business tool that serves as a framework to break down the entire relationship businesses have with their customers. It helps us identify where our weak points are and how we can improve our business. It’s a simple 6-step funnel that goes as follows:
As soon as people know the shop is open for business we have met this goal. How do we do this? We could, for instance, put flyers up in the neighbourhood. Would that make people aware? Yes. Would that scale as the business grows? Not really. What is the equivalent of flyers in the online world? Display advertisement, local directories, Chamber of Commerce sites, Yellow Pages, Google AdWords, Google Search.
Can we consider people acquired when they visit the website? This is a classic mistake. It’s true if you have an online business, but not when you have physical business location. People are acquired when they call a phone number, they send an email or even better, when they walk into the shop.
People are activated if they become customers. They can buy something, take their computer in for repairs, lease a big copy machine.
People are retained if they come back and purchase again. Some people may sign a service contract for support, they may simply take another computer in for support and so on.
Customers are so happy about the service they tell other people and bring in more customers. They can also be invited to do so by a well-designed referral program.
The final goal of every activity is to generate revenue in a sustainable and long-term way.
WOW, I though this was about websites and WordPress and we are all business here. As I said, first thing’s first, there is no business site without a business. Never detach your online strategy from the business you are trying to serve.
Now that we have all our steps in place, what do we do?
Landing pages 101
Imagine you go camping and you are looking for a pocket knife. You go to a shop and what do you ask for? A pocket knife, right?
Good, so the man at the counter shows you this knife, a luxurious kitchen knife, extremely well-designed and well-balanced. Wow, it’s an amazing knife, but would you take it with you to go camping? Of course not.
Oh, sorry, says the guy, you’re going camping, right? Then he shows you a top-of-the-line pocket knife with every tool under the sun and then some.
So why do you always settle for the first two options when you set up a website: A site so beautiful that it is basically useless or a website so packet with features that you can barely find what you are looking for.
Websites are tools, they need to be useful. Then they can be beautiful and eventually full of features. But first of all they need to be useful.
A business site, to be useful, needs to do one job and one job only: Get people through the door. How? By providing enough information, trust and reliability to the visitor and we do that with powerful landing pages.
100% of the traffic we care about comes from another site. They can be coming through display advertisement, directories, partners but most of all from Google AdWord or Google organic search. Direct traffic is not so important for conversion because if someone knows how to reach your website directly, then they are already willing to walk in the door.
In order to convert visitors into customers we need to have killer landing pages, each one of them sharply refined down to the very last pixel.
What do we need on every landing page?
A phone number
Big, easy to spot and clickable. Don’t shake your head, this is the most valuable thing you can put on the site. People trust phone numbers and will call. The phone number must be marked up in the code and clickable.
The address of the shop
Make it prominent. Don’t put a map, put an address and eventually a link to Google Maps. Maps slow down the page and nobody will ever use that map. People can click on the address if they need to.
It’s very important if you want people to show up. Phone numbers, addresses and opening hours must be marked up so Google can pick them up and show them on maps and local business listings. There are plugins that can do the job for you. For instance WordPress SEO by Joast does all of this.
Basic information about what people are looking for.
If you have a set of products or services, every product must have a dedicated page, with a clear call to action, like call or send an email.
These are basics, but just try to remember how many of the sites you visit do these basics right.
It should go without saying you need a responsive theme because if you cut off your mobile visitors you are out of business in no time.
A clear call to action
Define your call to action and put it on the landing page. It must be one and one only. Don’t pack landing pages with links and stuff. Just tell people what to do to contact you. It can be a phone call, or sending an email.
Measure all things
You cannot improve anything if you can’t measure it. So let’s start by measuring things. A few metrics are easy to measure, others are very difficult. We are dealing with a local business so we just need to focus on those easy-enough metrics that can be leveraged and make a real difference. Who is the king of online metrics? Exactly Google Analytics. We are going to see Analytics a lot here.
How many people call, send emails or walk into the shop and more specifically how many of them are coming from the website?
Three ways to have a pretty accurate estimate:
– Ask new clients how they found out about you.
– Have a full event tracking on Google Analytics. When people click on the email address or the phone number, track it.
– The hook: If you mention a special discount on your website, have people who walk in mention it.
One of the best ways to keep your customers engaged is to offer them a newsletter. Email marketing is really powerful. WordPress offers many ways to engage your readers via email:
– Jetpack offers email subscription to your content.
– Mailchimp for WordPress is a powerful plugin that integrates Mailchimp with your website, allowing you to have powerful email campaigns.
Once again, it’s very important to measure not just how many emails you send, the open rate and the click rate. What really matters is how many people come back to the business. Measure everything!
Design – Test – Verify – Improve
Here comes the most powerful advice of all: Test your assumptions. I know you are skilled developers, talented designers and amazing code poets but don’t take anything for granted when it comes to business sites. You know your audience but most of the time you know nothing about your client’s clients. Try different designs, different flow, and most of all iterate often on landing pages.
Design – Test – Verify – Improve – Iterate Fast.
Rethink business sites. Next time you have to deal with a business site remember these three things:
- Define reasonable goals.
- Measure all the things.
- Online and offline go together.
One more thing…
Don’t be afraid of offering seemingly old-school solutions to your clients. The only thing that matters is offering valuable support for the business they’re running. Most of the time, they’re still stuck in the 70s. Taking them to 1995 with a solid email marketing strategy connected to their site can be a real game-changer. You don’t need ello for that!
Nel 2001, a 21 anni, è iniziata la mia carriera da freelance. Successe quasi per caso: mi avevano chiesto di fare un sito web e accettando, aprii le porte a tutto quello che venne dopo.
Quando iniziai, non avevo idea di come mandare avanti la mia attività, quindi copiavo da coloro che già erano nel mercato.
Ho fatto fare un timbro, biglietti da visita, carta intestata. Ho comprato un quaderno e una penna per prendere appunti. Mi ricordo che una volta sono stato quattro ore a discutere con un amico le mie tariffe orarie. Avevo studiato un sistema progressivo in base a quante ore di consulenza sarebbero state pagate in anticipo e così via.
Credo di aver usato il timbro forse una sola volta, non ho mai stampato niente su carta intestata ed ogni cliente é sempre stato trattato come un’eccezione quindi non ho mai applicato il mio sistema di tariffe orarie.
Per molto tempo ho pensato che fosse colpa della mia inesperienza, avevo la sensazione che i veri imprenditori sapessero qualcosa in più di me, che sapessero fare meglio di me.
Dopo tanti anni in questo settore posso dire che mi sbagliavo di grosso. Questo settore non è diviso tra chi non sa nulla e chi sa tutto, tra chi non ha idea di quello che sta facendo e i guru del business.
Ci sono comunque due grandi categorie di persone in questa industria: quelle che ammettono di non avere idea di quello che stanno facendo e i bugiardi.
Persone che ammettono di essere alla ricerca di qualcosa di meglio e persone che si affidano alla tradizione, al comfort e alle vecchie abitudini.
Quando parlo di Automattic e della nostra cultura aziendale mi rendo conto di quanto sia facile soffermarsi sulle caratteristiche più ovvie, quelle cose che facilmente catturano l’attenzione anche dei più scettici. È facile dire che noi abbiamo bandito le riunioni di lavoro: tutti odiano le riunioni, giusto?
Siamo inoltre conosciuti per essere tra le più grandi aziende completamente distribuite. Ognuno di noi lavora da casa e mi basta parlare di questo per ottenere due reazioni opposte: c’é chi resta affascinato dall’idea di non dover più perdere tempo per andare in ufficio e chi, più scettico, risponde: “non funzionerebbe mai se vendeste prodotti fisici”. Il che è probabilmente vero, ma non completamente. Ci sono elementi della nostra cultura aziendale che sono molto più profondi dello stare comodamente seduti a casa propria.
Nella mia esperienza ci sono almeno tre elementi che mi hanno colpito sin dal primo momento. Questi tre elementi sono talmente radicati nel nostro DNA aziendale da rendere le altre caratteristiche pure conseguenze.
Prima di tutto abbiamo superato il concetto tradizionale di tempo. Non lo usiamo per prendere decisioni, non lo usiamo per misurare la quantità di lavoro, non le prendiamo in grande considerazione nei nostri comportamenti.
Abbiamo persone in tutto il mondo, a volte i team sono sparsi su più continenti. Non diamo alcuna importanza a quando le persone sono online o per quanto tempo. Non chiediamo alle persone di tenere traccia delle ore lavorate, non devono timbrare il cartellino. Le persone sono libere di prendere tempo libero quando ritengono di averne bisogno e possono andare in vacanza quando vogliono.
In poche parole lasciamo che le persone lavorino quanto vogliono, quando vogliono. L’unica cosa che ha importanza sono i risultati dei loro sforzi. Se il lavoro procede bene oppure no.
Inoltre non ci piacciono le attività sincrone come le telefonate o le videoconferenze. I nostri team fanno al massimo una videoconferenza tutti insieme non più di un’ora a settimana. Tutto il nostro lavoro si svolge in modo asincrono.
Quando la mia candidatura ad Automattic é stata presa in considerazione sono stato invitato ad una chat su Skype dalla persona incaricata di valutarmi. Ho risposto: “certo, a che ora e per quanto tempo, così posso metterlo nel mio calendario?”. Mi é stato risposto: “Io sono in viaggio in Costa Rica, ti faccio le domande quando ho una connessione, tu rispondimi quando hai tempo”. La chat é andata avanti per tre giorni.
Sembra terribile ma non lo è. Disfandosi del concetto tradizionale di tempo, non appena ci si connette ad Internet tramite uno qualunque dei nostri dispositivi, entriamo a far parte di una realtà estesa in cui il concetto di tempo non ha più alcuna rilevanza.
Siamo abituati a fare le cose in modo sincrono solamente perché cerchiamo di replicare la realtà materiale. Quando riusciamo ad andare oltre a questo modo inefficiente di fare le cose allora facciamo sbocciare il nostro vero potenziale e iniziamo ad essere davvero efficienti.
Ora non utilizziamo piú Skype e siamo passati a Slack per tutte le nostre comunicazioni in tempo reale. Questo ci rende davvero liberi perché Slack ci permette di spostarci senza problemi tra i diversi dispositivi e possiamo mantenere aperti canali di comunicazione permanenti con i nostri colleghi.
Il secondo elemento che ci contraddistingue é la nostra completa autogestione che si concretizza in una gerarchia completamente piatta e dalla nostra naturale avversione allo status-quo. Siamo incoraggiati ad utilizzare qualunque strumento riteniamo idoneo al completamento delle nostre attivitá. Questo significa che non dobbiamo barcamenarci con strumenti obsoleti. Quante aziende obbligano i propri dipendenti all’utilizzo di specifico hardware, software o procedure per il semplice fatto che sono le uniche autorizzate in azienda? Noi non ci pensiamo neanche. Noi vogliamo essere sicuri che il lavoro proceda velocemente ed efficientemente ma non utiliziamo nessuno strumento per il semplice fatto che fosse li prima di noi.
Questa non é solamente un questione di strumenti, é un completo ribaltamento dell’atteggiamento di chi é chiamato a mansioni gestionali. I nostri Team Lead hanno il ruolo di organizzazione del lavoro piú che di controllori della produttività. I nostri Team Lead fanno in modo che i progetti siano ben organizzati e procedano senza ostacoli.
Il terzo principio é la trasparenza totale. Solo alcune questioni personali, tipicamente gestite dalle Risorse Umane, sono considerate private nella nostra azienda. L’intera attività di sviluppo, le strategie, i prodotti, l’esperienza, la conoscenza e i risultati finanziari sono completamente condivisi all’interno dell’organizzazione. Le decisioni sono sempre associate al contesto da cui scaturiscono e tutte le informazioni sono facilmente accessibili a tutti. Se un nuovo collega si unisce ad un team avrà a disposizione tutto lo storico di quello che é successo prima di lui e potrá iniziare da subito ad essere produttivo. Se qualcuno lascia un team per una nuova posizione, non dovrà preoccuparsi di passare il proprio testimone attraverso un periodo di passaggio delle consegne, la sua conoscenza é già stata condivisa con il resto del team, quotidianamente durante l’attività ordinaria.
Abbiamo inoltre abbassato il costo del fallimento in modo da poterci permettere di sbagliare il piú spesso possibile. Abbiamo disconnesso gli errori dalle azioni disciplinari in modo da coltivare una cultura dell’apertura e dell’insegnamento. Non é questione di quanto sia grave l’errore che si commette ma é importante come si reagisce ad esso e come si fa in modo che lo stesso errore non venga più commesso in futuro. Questo concetto, unito alla totale trasparenza, porta le persone a documentare gli sbagli e a condividere gli insegnamenti con il resto dell’azienda, rendendola più forte ogni giorno di più.
Sono sicuro che avrete facilmente compreso come questi tre principi: un concetto nuovo del tempo, autogestione e trasparenza totale siano investimenti a lungo termine.
Se venissero introdotti improvvisamente in una struttura tradizionale porterebbero ad uno stato di confusione, nella migliore delle ipotesi, o più probabilmente al caos totale Questi principi sono stati presenti nella nostra azienda sin dall’inizio e sono evoluti nel tempo attraverso un processo di prove, errori, e insegnamenti tra tutte le parti in causa.
Severissimo processo di assunzione
Avrete inoltre capito che questo tipo di ambiente non é adatto a tutti. In effetti questo é vero perciò il nostro processo di assunzione richiede candidati preparati, brillanti ma soprattutto culturalmente allineati al nostro modo di lavorare.
Sono facili da trovare? No, non lo sono. Essere distribuiti rimuove i limiti geografici e ci permette di accedere ad un mercato dei talenti su scala globale. Rifiutiamo piú candidati di quanti ne assumiamo e facciamo di tutto per assicurarci solo i migliori che riescono a soddisfare i nostri standard.
Questo ci rende difficile crescere velocemente in numero di dipendenti ma ci fornisce un formidabile privilegio. Ogni volta che un nuovo collega entra in azienda sappiamo con certezza che é passato attraverso un rigoroso processo di assunzione e ha la nostra totale fiducia sin dal primo giorno.
Quante volte é capitato ad un nuovo collega di doversi dimostrare all’altezza della vostra fiducia? Se si assumono solo i migliori e si tengono alti i propri standard allora si hanno solo giocatori di serie A.
Ora vi starete certamente chiedendo se c’è qualcosa che potreste fare fin da subito per migliorare la vostra azienda.
Purtroppo io non posso dirvi cosa fare ma posso dirvi cosa farei di diverso se dovessi rifare tutto da capo un’altra volta.
Vi pongo questa domanda: non mi va il sangue al cervello quando state lavorando insieme a qualcuno che ha sempre una finestra con Facebook sullo schermo e manda in continuazione messaggi ai propri amici? Io non lo ho mai potuto sopportare, fino a quando ho capito che il problema ero io.
Non é giusto preoccuparsi di come le altre persone gestiscono il proprio modo di lavorare, di cosa hanno sul proprio schermo, su come organizzano le proprie giornate. L’unica cosa che conta é il risultato che portano. É importante imparare a non mettere il proprio giudizio personale di fronte ai risultati professionali.
Io faccio di tutto per ignorare quello che fanno le altre persone, quando lo fanno e come lo fanno. Non mi interesso minimamente al modo di organizzarsi e di operare dei miei colleghi, Team Lead, o subordinati.
Mi preoccupo solamente che i nostri obiettivi siano ben definiti, comunicati in modo chiaro, correttamente compresi da tutti. Dopodiché mi assicuro che le cose da fare siano fatte senza preoccuparmi del come e del quando.
Capisco che questo sia molto piú facile in un contesto distribuito ma in ogni caso si deve imparare a lasciar andare molti dei giudizi personali a cui siamo abituati.
Il secondo cambiamento che ho vissuto sulla mia pelle é il rapporto che ho verso i miei errori. Ho imparato a perdonare il prossimo ma soprattutto a perdonare me stesso. So che commetterò errori e so anche che troverò il modo di risolverli ed eventualmente chiederò aiuto a qualcuno. Una delle cose più difficili da imparare é saper chiedere aiuto. Fate in modo che il vostro ego non sia il limite al vostro potenziale.
La terza lezione che ho imparato é saper dire di no. Non avere paura di avere standard troppo alti, fai in modo di circondarti solo delle persone migliori. Se non riesci a capire chi é lo stupido in un gruppo di persone, probabilmente sei tu. Se invece ti rendi conto di essere la persona piú intelligente nel gruppo allora hai sbagliato gruppo in cui stare.
Quando ho iniziato a lavorare in Automattic ho deciso di puntare tutto e lasciar andare tutti gli altri progetti che stavo seguendo. É stato difficile ma so che é stata la miglior scelta che potessi fare.
Rifiutare i clienti troppo problematici. Rifiuta i candidati che non raggiungono i tuoi standard. Rifiuta le condizioni lavorative che non ti soddisfano e impara a dire di no alle cose che non ti fanno stare bene.
Ci viene detto che dobbiamo imparare ad adattarci ma c’é una profonda differenza tra l’adattamento e l’accettazione incondizionata.
Prendi una cosa che non ti piace nella tua azienda, qualcosa che hai il potere di cambiare e dedica i prossimi tre mesi a cambiarla. Non importa quanto sia difficile, parti da una singola cosa e ti sarai fatto un regalo importante.
I profitti vanno e vengono ma il buon lavoro, la buona arte e le buone persone restano. Sii orgoglioso di quello che fai, rendi migliore la tua azienda e il mondo intorno a te.
This article is available in the original version in English: How I fell into the rabbit hole: life and work at the distributed wonderland
In 2001, I was 21 years old and had just started freelancing. Like many of us, it fell into my lap: someone asked me to make their website and so it went.
When I started, I had no clue how to run my business. So I did what I thought was right: I copied everything other people in the market were doing.
I made a stamp, business cards, templates for my business stationery. I bought a paper pad and a nice pen to take notes. I remember once I spent four hours refining my hourly rate with a friend. I had a multi-tiered system according to how many hours of service were required and so on.
I used the stamp maybe once, I haven’t printed a single paper invoice since then and every single client was treated as an exception, so the hourly rate never applied, the way it was supposed to.
For a long time I thought it was just my inexperience. I had the feeling experienced entrepreneurs knew something I didn’t, that they did things better. I felt like an outsider, I wasn’t one of those people who seemed to know what they were doing.
I’ve spent enough time in this industry to confidently say that I was dead wrong. This industry is not divided between who knows nothing and who knows it all, between who has no clue and the business guru.
There are however, two types of people in this industry: people who admit they have no clue and liars.
People who are open to admit they are looking for something better and people who rely on tradition, comfort and old habits.
When I speak to people about Automattic and our culture, it’s easy to indulge and focus on the most peculiar details, the obvious ones, the ones that surprise people and make them go “wow”. It’s easy to catch people’s attention just by saying we don’t have meetings. Everybody hates meetings, right?
We are also widely known as a fully distributed company. Everybody works from home and just with that simple fact, I easily get two polarized reactions: it intrigues those who would love to kick their commute and we get the old fashioned “that would never work if you sold physical products”. That is probably true, but only partially. There are elements in our work culture that are much deeper and way stronger than sitting at home by ourselves.
In my experience, there are three major elements which have really struck me since my first day at Automattic. I see these three elements as so deeply rooted in the company’s DNA that many of the other characteristics we have are simply natural consequences of these.
Firstly, we’re over the traditional view of time. We don’t let it control our decisions, we don’t use it to track our efforts, we don’t let it control our behaviours.
We have people all over the globe, sometimes teams are fragmented across multiple continents. But we don’t care when people are online or for how long. We don’t ask people to track their hours, we don’t ask them to clock in and clock out. We let people take time off when they think it’s needed and we let them decide when and how long they should go on holidays.
In a few simple words we let people work as much as they want, whenever they want. The only thing we care about are the results of their efforts. If things get done or not.
We also dislike synchronous activities like phone calls or video chats. Our team hangouts are limited to maximum once per week, per team. All the remaining communication is completely asynchronous.
Let me walk you through my experience as I began to understand this. I applied at Automattic and when my application was reviewed, I was invited on Skype by the person handling my file. He wanted to know a little more about me and he said: “are you up for a Skype chat?” I replied “sure, let me know when and for how long so I can put it in my calendar”. He clarified the process: “I’m traveling to Costa Rica at the moment, I’ll drop my questions in here when I have a connection, and you answer when you have time”. The chat went on for 3 days.
It sounds exhausting, right? Well, no it’s not. As soon as you get rid of the traditional concept of time, you realize that when we are connected to the Internet with any one of our devices, we are part of an extended reality where the traditional approach to time does not make sense anymore.
We are used to doing things synchronously because we mimic the physical world. But when you get over that, that’s when your true potential blooms and you start feeling really efficient.
Right now, we don’t use Skype anymore and we’ve migrated most of our real-time communication to Slack. Now we are really free because Slack allows you to seamlessly switch devices and you can keep chats open with multiple people, channels and groups at the same time.
The second element that sets us apart is the complete self-management, which is expressed by a flat hierarchy and a rejection of the status quo. We are entitled to use any tool we find appropriate to complete our tasks. That means that we don’t struggle with legacy systems. How many companies force their employees to use a specific hardware, software and follow specific procedures? We don’t. We just want to make sure it all works quickly and efficiently, but we don’t use things just because they were there before us.
But it’s not just a matter of tools, it’s a complete shift in the management mindset. Team Leads have the role of organizing work more than controlling productivity, they are responsible for keeping things together and making sure everything flows smoothly.
The third core principle is total transparency. Only a few HR-related topics are considered private. The whole production, product, and experience-related knowledge is publicly spread across the entire organization. Decisions are always linked to their context and all the pieces of information are quickly accessible to everyone. If a new member joins the team, they can easily access everything that happened before and can quickly get up to speed. If a team member is leaving, he doesn’t need to hand over his knowledge: it was poured into the internal documentation every single day.
We also lowered the cost of failure in order to make failure affordable and frequent. We disconnect errors from disciplinary consequences: it is not about the single mistake but how we make sure we don’t repeat it. This, within a context of full transparency, means people feel encouraged to document their mistakes and the learnings are shared with the whole organization.
I’m sure you realize that all of these principles: a new approach to time, self-management and total transparency are extremely long term investments.
If you suddenly implement these in a traditional environment you are going to face confusion, in the best case, or most probably total chaos. These principles need to be there from the very beginning and they are the result of much trial and error, fine tuning and negotiation.
You are probably thinking that this environment is not for everybody. You’re right, our hiring process is very strict and requires dedicated, passionate and culturally like-minded candidates. Are they easy to find? No, they are not. But being distributed removes the limits of geography and allows us to access a much wider market of talent. We refuse more people than we accept and we make sure we hire only the best who meet our standards.
That makes it hard to grow in terms of headcount but gives us a formidable privilege. Every time a new person joins the company we know for sure they went through a strict process, so they immediately have our trust.
How many times have you required a new coworker to prove themselves to you before earning your trust? If you only hire the best people and you keep your standards high, then you only have A-listers.
But you are probably asking yourself if there are a few thing you can do right now to improve your company.
I cannot tell you what to do, but I can tell you, in hindsight, what I would do differently if I had to do it all over again.
Let me ask you something: don’t you get mad when your coworker is constantly on Facebook or answering text messages? I used to freak out, until I realized that I was the problem. I shouldn’t care what people have on their screens and how they organize their day. The only thing that matters is the output. Don’t let your cultural bias get in the way, keep your judgment to yourself.
I do my best to ignore what people do, when they do it and how they do it. My coworkers, my leads, my subordinates. I make sure goals are well defined, properly communicated and correctly understood. Then I make sure things happen without getting stressed about the minor details.
I understand it’s easier in a distributed environment, but regardless, let go of personal judgment, it will get in the way.
The second big change I experienced was a shift in my relationship with my mistakes. I learned how to forgive others but mostly how to forgive myself. I know I will make mistakes and I will fix them or someone will help me. Asking for help was one of the most difficult things to learn. Make sure your ego is not limiting your true potential.
Third key learning: say no. Don’t be afraid to have high standards. Make sure you surround yourself only with top players. If you cannot tell who’s the fool in the room, it’s probably you. But if you feel like the most intelligent person in the room, you should move to another room.
When I joined Automattic I decided to go all in and clear any other projects from my plate. It was hard but I know it was one of the best choices I ever made. Make sure you say no to difficult clients. Make sure you say no to candidates who are not meeting your standards. Make sure you don’t accept things that don’t feel right. We tend to think we should adapt, but adapting and conceding are very different things.
Take one thing you don’t like in your company, something you have the power to change and commit the next three months to that.
Profits come and go, but good work, good art and good people stay. Take pride in what you do, make the world a better place.