The other day we were interviewing a great new software developer for our marketing team, Denica, when I asked if she had any questions, she said, “I would really like to work for a startup and I’m unsure I will fit into a big company like Tradeshift”.
I yelled, “We are a startup!” and then I realized – we certainly don’t look like it.
We have four floors in the centre of Copenhagen. Nice desks, furniture – we are comfortable. In Danish you would say it’s “hyggeligt”, which means something like cozy.
It scared the shit out of me. Being from a nation where government welfare is the default, a nanny state, I can see how “hygge” can kill any startup. The reality is that Tradeshift is still very much a startup: we might look like a real company, but underneath that very nice and well-marketed exterior is a fragile being in its most dangerous state – “a startup looking like a real company”.
This is the state where new hires might not know the difference between a startup and the former companies they worked at if someone didn’t tell them. Two years ago it was self-evident that we were a startup from the simple fact that we were sitting in a garage freezing our asses off as we could choose between running the heater or having power for our laptops and Internet (no we did not choose warmth); back then we were never in doubt what was next, because everything was on fire and nothing worked – we worked like maniacs and loved every second of it, we were not afraid of anyone and we had nothing to lose.
As your company grows, you can’t help loosing a little bit of that feeling, you hire managers, create new processes and just settle into certain ways of “doing stuff” and suddenly before you realize it you look like a real corporation not a startup, but you are not, the investors still expect extreme growth and that you disrupt something, comfortable people don’t disrupt. But more than I believe that most existing management methods are not scalable to the hyper scale required for fast growing startups, classic command & control just breaks down when scaling fast.
So what do you do?
At Tradeshift we specifically try to counter becoming too corporate by disrupting our own organization continuously.
As we grew we knew we had to do something to keep the startup feeling alive. We introduced some simple concepts to fight the corporatification and make sure we keep the best from the early days.
1) Break the pattern: every three months we have our Tradeshift team camp, which is a crazy experience of 48 hours non-stop work on new concepts, strategies and ideas combined with plenty of beer and lack of sleep – in short original startup-life simulation.
2) Piracy is expected: we try to drill into anyone that we expect them to be pirates and make decisions they think are right first, and ask later. I believe in hiring really great people, giving them a direction and then letting them run as fast as they can.
3) Accelerate the problems: challenges are good and comfort isn’t; if we are becoming too comfortable I try to break something, typically by overloading it. We just told our sales team that there are no limits to how much they can sell in 2012, knowing that the rest of the organization still don’t have a clue how we will deliver, but in the end I know they prefer the challenge to boredom.
If you can keep your organization challenged, breaking the patterns and encouraging piracy I think you can postpone the inevitable growing up (at least for a little while).
Now I can’t wait till Denica experiences her first team camp in December and hopefully learns that we are still very much a startup.
But just to be sure, I did this presentation at our last company wide meeting.