6 Ways to Create a Happy Startup
One of the great things about starting new initiatives is that you get to architect the structure of your business from scratch. Here's how we're thinking about ScreenCloud, and trying to make it our most effective (read: happiest) environment yet.
Together with my two co-founders, Mark McDermott and Luke Hubbard, we’ve been running our own businesses since 2004 when we started a digital agency, Codegent. Since then we’ve created a number of side projects, some of which have gone off to be their own thing, some of which haven’t. But the one that we’re most excited about and now all focused on is ScreenCloud, a digital signage business. One of the great things about starting new initiatives is that you get to architect the structure of your business from scratch.
For me, ScreenCloud is the culmination of learning from our mistakes and our successes, with a bit of modern working practices thrown in, too. We’re trying to build a company that we can be proud of: that takes care or its staff and of its customers. And as a job, I’ve never been happier. Obviously there are always ways in which we can improve and that in itself is part of what makes running ScreenCloud so rewarding. In fact it’s a key tenet of the business: structuring ourselves so that we can react quickly to changes and opportunities that arise. Here are some of the principles we have embraced that makes ScreenCloud better than anything we’ve done before.
1. Having a vision (and a purpose)
We make it easy for any organisation to create and manage great content on their public screens. Whether it’s a couple of screens in the office lobby, or thousands of screens in multiple retail locations, ScreenCloud is a cost-effective and powerful tool for everyone.
We want this business to make a positive ‘dent’ in the world and our vision is to have 1,000,000 screens using our technology by the end of 2021.
Everyone who works for us knows this. We talk about it all the time to them. We have a live countdown on one of the screens in the office that tells us when we are going to reach 1 million screens based on our current trajectory. Sometimes it stays in 2021, sometimes it shifts into 2022, only to move back into 2021 again. And although 2021 is only three years away, right now we’re way off that million screen mark. It’s a hugely ambitious target, but it’s one we think we can hit if we can be the best at what we do and capture enough people’s attention.
In our previous companies it was harder to have a vision. We were an agency and along with a million other agencies, we were experts in a particular sector because we’d had some clients in that sector. But really, were we any better than any half-decent agency? We didn’t aspire to be the biggest, or even have the most awards, so really our vision was more about making money: how much profit we could make. When you tell your staff that the company’s vision is to make 10% margin this year, 15% the year after and 20% in the year after that, it’s kind of not that motivating. Why would your staff care whether you made 10%, 20% or 25%: it’s not much of an ambition?
So what actually happens in that scenario is that there is no vision. And when there is no vision, everyone creates their own interpretation of why we’re here and what matters. The result is an army of well-meaning staff pulling in different directions and getting frustrated because they think decisions being taken are stupid.
Why does having a vision matter?
If you know where the company is pointing, if you understand the journey it is hoping to take and why, then as a boss and an employee you feel like you have a beacon to guide you. When the craziness of the day-to-day melee is distracting you, you can keep coming back to why we’re all here. Will we achieve our goal of 1 million screens by the end of 2021? Maybe, maybe not, but at least we’re all pulling in the same direction. And being part of a shared journey, even if that journey is sometimes a struggle, can be fun and rewarding.
2. Digital transformation
When we first started Codegent, we had a physical server in the corner of the room. We had a shared paper-based diary so me and my co-founder, Mark could see what each other was up to and a filing cabinet that held all of our receipts, invoices and related correspondence. Our software was bought as a CD that was delivered via mail and uploaded to our PCs (we made sure we held onto the original disc and box as that had the serial number on it). Most people paid us by check and we recorded all of our customer orders on an Excel spreadsheet. Oh how times have changed. Even if you preferred the old ways, it’s almost impossible to run your business these days and avoid the world of SaaS (Software as a Service) whether you like it or not. But we’ve embraced this as much as we can.
We don’t have a filing cabinet anymore because we don’t keep any paper. Everything is saved digitally: if there’s a physical receipt, it’s scanned using Receipt Bank and then destroyed. All of our commercial data lives on the Cloud, either as a Google file or in Dropbox. Our accounts are on Xero which syncs automatically with our bank. All of our software is SaaS: our mantra is that if it can be automated, then we’ll automate it. We don’t want anything residing in someone’s head, or lost in their email. There is no part of our business that predominantly lives outside of some sort of automated software for managing it.
Benefits of being digitally-driven
Working in this way means that everyone can access everything they need to regardless of where they are. It also means that there is no growing forgotten junkyard of boxes containing bits of paper that nobody will ever look at again and no fear of losing something because you forgot where you filed it or accidentally chucked it out during a decluttering fit. Not having to worry about where everything is and who knows how to do what is hugely liberating. It means you can focus your energies on building the company.
3. Distributed and nomadic
At the moment we have staff in London, Bangkok and Arizona. We also work closely with an outsourcing tech company in Lviv, Ukraine. But our plan is to become more distributed, still. Whilst we will keep offices as ‘hubs’ in London, Bangkok and (probably) New York, we’re not limiting ourselves only to talent within a commutable distance from those cities. If there’s someone smart that wants to work for us and lives in Berlin, Moscow, Mumbai, Dubai, or Hong Kong — then that’s great for us, too.
What’s more, we’re pretty nomadic: in London, our ‘hub’ is a section of a floor owned by one of our investors, R/GA. We pay them a monthly fee per desk that is all inclusive. And for now, we’re just fine with this. We have no long-term lease, no fear that we might have to replace the boiler or get the aircon serviced. No cleaner contract, no gas, electricity, rates, internet, alarm and no need to hold onto some cash for ‘dilapidations’ (which in my experience is just another item on a long list of ways in which people will try to fleece you as a business) and, other than each person’s laptop, a few screens, our firewall and router, and some recording equipment for our podcast, we have no possessions. Which means at the drop of a hat we could get up and relocate. Yes, it’s possibly disconcerting that we could by the same token be homeless at the drop of a hat — but we kind of don’t care. There are thousands of companies just like us who use spaces like WeWork, or our friends at DeskLodge, and can flex their arrangements as they grow. We have a virtual registered office where all our official mail goes to, so we don’t have to worry about updating our bank or the government or our invoice address each time we move.
In the company we had before, we had a 5 year lease. 5 years! We have no idea how big we will be in 5 years, but given that we’ve grown by about 300% in the last 12 months, I think it would be safe to say that if we signed up for a 5 year lease again we would either have to get something that was empty for most of that period, or get something smaller and accept that we would outgrow whatever we had pretty quickly. Either way, a 5 year lease would not be suitable for our needs.
I personally think that the future is one where people choose where they want to live based on their interests and life circumstances rather than where they are most likely to get a job: cities will be attractive because of their vibrancy and choice of restaurants, shops, bars, clubs and theatres, rather than being the best place in the world to work in advertising or banking or technology.
Benefits of being distributed and nomadic
The first benefit is that we can spread our net wider in the search for great people. But it also means that if our staff prefer, they don’t have to work in a capital city with all the accompanying costs and congestion.
I’m looking forward to when our first employee announces that they are going to relocate to the French Alps because they love snowboarding in the winter and mountain-biking in the summer. And why not? How motivating would it be to feel that you can have a proper career and follow your outside-work passions, even it’s just for a few years until you decide that you want to live somewhere else?
4. Trusting our staff
One thing that you hear over and over again from companies who tend to employ people because of their ability to create or consult, is that “our people are our greatest asset”. Because, if all you are really selling is your people’s time and/or ability to create something valuable, then that’s pretty much all you have. You could say “it’s our incredible processes” or “it’s our years of experience” but really, processes and experience are directly related to people. And yet, when you hear objections to allowing staff to work from home or more flexibly, it usually comes down to the fact that the employer doesn’t really believe that the staff will work as hard if they aren’t in the office. Like they will spend all day playing X-Box and watching Jerry Springer. Somehow your best asset is simultaneously not to be trusted: their productivity will go down because someone isn’t able to walk over to their desk and look over their shoulders.
We’re not saying it’s easy, but if your starting point is that you hire bright, engaged, ambitious grown-ups that you trust to do the right thing, then everything else is a natural extension of that. Ambitious grown-ups won’t goof off all day and play X-Box. Ambitious grown-ups want to do a good job, learn, advance their careers and feel fulfilled when they start work each day.
Advantages of trusting your employees
In my experience, managing upwards has always been the most stressful part of any job I had prior to starting my own thing. What a waste of energy and time that was. Why not aim to make employees feel that they are in it with you: that they are accountable for the decisions they make without needing to clock in and clock out or account for every minute of the day? We know what we have to do, we just need to do it. And it may be a cliché, but it’s true: trust is two-way street. If you trust people they will trust you back. And if they trust you back, then they’re more likely to want to do the best by you and the company.
5. Not worrying about how much holiday people have taken (within reason)
We have an unlimited vacation policy at ScreenCloud largely for the same reasons why we are relaxed about trusting people to work at home. We don’t believe that the people we hire will abuse it. Everyone knows what they are hired to do and that that requires collaboration with others in the company. We’re not saying “take as much holiday as you like and come in if you feel like it”, but rather: “we’re not going to scrutinise how much holiday you’ve taken because we trust you that you will do what you need to do to get the job done”.
It means that we don’t have that ridiculous thing at the end of the year where people are sat in an empty office between Christmas and New Year with nothing to do because they only had half a day’s holiday left. At the same time it also means that if people really need to take an extended break: they have to visit family in a different part of the world or they need some time out to recharge, then we’re not going to give them a hard time about it. The main thing is that we want people to be happy and healthy because if they’re not then they won’t be on top form and won’t do the best job they can do for us. You could say it’s kind of altruistic but for selfish reasons!
Advantages of unlimited holidays
For us, it comes down to trust and empowerment. Put people in charge of their own decisions about what they do and when and it’s one less thing to get anxious about. From an admin point of view it simplifies things too. We just think that tracking people’s holiday down to the half day has just become the norm but we all know it’s ridiculous. If you start Nickel and Dime-ing staff on the amount of time they have taken off, then why wouldn’t they do the same to you when push came to shove?
6. Promoting work/life/health balance
All this leads to the idea that you need to try and feel as happy as you can in your work, your home-life and your health and mental well-being. But this can only happen, I believe, if it’s part of the culture. And to be part of the culture it has to come from the top.
Think about it: if the bosses come into work every day in a suit and tie, chances are the staff will feel uncomfortable rocking up in jeans and a t-shirt. If the founders are in at 7am and don’t leave until 9pm and never take a lunch-break, you will probably generate a culture of long hours and “lunch is for losers” mentality without even trying. I used to work somewhere where the official end of the day was 6pm, and at around 6:30pm the MD would do a walk around the office to see who was still there. Can you guess what time the most ambitious members of staff left the office? Yep, about 6:35pm.
Incidentally, there is research that suggests that working longer hours actually makes you less productive.
At ScreenCloud, we try and encourage people to find the best working style for them, by example. I’m open that I tend to start early and finish late, but if I’m working from home, I’ll probably do the school run and I’ll almost certainly fit in a run at some point (normally first thing). So although I clock in early and clock-out late, I’m definitely not working 12 hours a day. My most prolific working time tends to be between 4:00pm and 7:00pm — not sure why, but earlier in the day I tend to get more distracted with emails and reading. I’m much better at focusing later on. And while I generally go for a run 4 or 5 times a week, my co-founder, Mark, is a qualified BODYPUMP instructor and often runs classes first thing in the morning or after work. He sometimes even does lunchtime sessions. What message does that send people who work at ScreenCloud? We’re not mandating exercise, but quite clearly, if you arrange your time in such a way that you are able to stay active, then we’re not going to stand in your way. We talk about this in more detail in one of our podcast episodes.
Benefits of a culture that encourages balance
We care about the people who work at ScreenCloud. We’ve invested a lot in getting them to work for us and we rely heavily on their talent and hard work to make us a success. Over time, they become friends as well as colleagues. Call me a hippy, but if you had a family member or close friend who was working so hard that they were neglecting their health and relationships, wouldn’t you be worried? Why shouldn’t an employer feel the same concern? Our motives might be slightly different: they want their loved ones to be happy because that’s just what you want for the people you love; we want our employees to be happy because they are more likely to be better contributors to our success (and because we’re all human beings, too).
I think that’s what they call a win-win.