Introducing PeopleSpark, My 5th Company


As we were building my previous company, Bigcommerce, from 2 to almost 500 people, I was extremely focused on improving our culture as we continued to grow at a furious pace, both in terms of hiring and revenue.

The culture we built over time had a strong focus on honesty, transparency and regular communication and I believe it was one of the reasons we were able to build such an incredible team that got along so well — even though that team is now hundreds of people spread across 3 offices and 2 countries.

One thing we did without fail was send out quarterly “mojo” surveys (an Austin Powers reference) to know how people were feeling and to get their feedback on what was going well and what wasn’t.

The surveys gave everyone across the company, regardless of role or tenure, a chance to share their honest feedback with not just their manager but the entire leadership team and also our board of directors.

Various people across the company would collect the survey results, collate the answers, roll them up to make sense of everything, share that with the leadership team and then we would present the findings back to the company at our next all-hands meeting.

This process worked incredibly well, but it took a lot of work by a lot of people to make it happen:

  • Someone had to create the survey
  • Someone had to send it out
  • Everyone had to be reminded (multiple times) to complete it
  • Someone had to break up the results by office and department
  • Stakeholders in each office had to distribute results to each team leader
  • Each leader had to review their team’s feedback and share it with them
  • The trends had to be collated from all survey results
  • Those trends were combined into a presentation for the leadership team
  • Someone would present that report to the leadership team
  • (Add another 7 steps here)
  • We’d repeat this at the end of every quarter

The other problem was that these were only done 4 times a year. For a company moving as quickly as we were, I felt that wasn’t enough.

Thinking About What’s Next

When I stepped away from an operational role at my previous company earlier this year, I thought about what I’d work on next. I’ve always started companies to solve problems I’ve personally experienced and wanted to do that again.

While the quarterly survey process we used at my previous company worked extremely well, it:

  • Took too long
  • Was too expensive
  • Wasn’t frequent enough
  • Was hard to see trends over time
  • Relied on 5 separate pieces of software

I started to think about the problem a bit more — and ultimately ended up deciding I wanted to start a company that focused on building a platform to help CEOs and managers get faster feedback from their teams.

I wanted to create something that:

  • Made people happier at work
  • Gave everyone an equal voice and a level playing field
  • Was a pleasure to use — for both managers and employees
  • Automated the entire check-in process — every week, not every quarter
  • Made it easy to see and spot trends over time as a CEO or manager
  • I could (and would genuinely want to) use myself

That was in April.

Fast forward 7 months and I’m really excited to put PeopleSpark out into the world. It’s been in limited preview release with quite a few companies since June and the feedback has been really great.

If you’re a founder, CEO or manager, we built PeopleSpark for you:

  • To help you be a better leader and an even better listener
  • To help improve communication, transparency and trust between you and your team(s)
  • To help you retain your best people and to know how they feel, what makes them excited and what’s slowing them down — every week

So what can expect from using PeopleSpark?

  • A regular stream of open, honest feedback from your team
  • Improved communication and trust with your team
  • See issues before they become a big deal
  • Higher retention, engagement and morale
  • More positive employee reviews on sites like Glassdoor

This is the start of what I hope will be a fun and important journey. It takes 7–10 years to build a really important company and that’s the time frame we’re all working off.

PeopleSpark solves a real problem as it is, but we also have lots of ideas to make it even better and we’re all focused on one thing — making people happier and more productive at work.

I’ve seen first-hand what a culture based around listening and transparency can do for a company — it’s not just incremental improvement, it’s transformational. I truly believe the only way to succeed when you’re growing is to adapt and improve your company based on consistent and regular feedback from your team.

I’d love you to give PeopleSpark a try with your team.

Thanks for reading!

A few additional links, if you feel so inclined:

How To Validate Your Startup Idea

How to validate your startup idea

Last week I announced my new startup studio, Capital H labs, where me and a handful of talented engineers and designers are working on products that will help companies grow faster and more predictably over time.

We’ll be launching our first product soon and we’ve essentially spent the last 5 months 1) validating the need for the product and 2) creating the product once we’d validated the demand.

Today I want to share the simple framework we used to validate our first idea, in the hopes that it will help other entrepreneurs avoid failure.

For reference, this is the exact same framework we used to validate the idea for Bigcommerce (which I co-founded) back in 2009. Today Bigcommerce has over 100,000 paying customers, 500 employees and $125M in VC raised.

Validating the demand for your product is more important than ANYTHING. More important than features, your team, design, pricing, etc.

Without market validation you’ll have a product that no one will pay for. You’ll burn a lot of time, energy and cash and you’ll end up stressed, probably depressed and definitely burned out.

And that hurts — a lot.

OK so let’s get to it — here’s how to validate your startup idea before you launch. Before you invest or raise $1. Before you hire anyone.

Step 1 — Write down the problem, not a specific solution

You want to be able to clearly articulate a problem that you or others experience regularly. Notice that you’re only focused on the problem here, not any specific solution — that comes later.

You want to be able to write down your problem in a simple statement. A few examples:

  • It’s impossible to follow up with customers once they leave a restaurant
  • It’s hard to determine which customers will churn before they actually do
  • It’s too hard to design professional-quality graphics for social media

You get the idea — keep it basic and refine the problem until you can articulate it with one sentence.

Step 2 — Determine if it’s a tier 1 problem or not

It’s easy to identify problems — they’re everywhere. What you’re really looking for is what I call a “tier 1 problem” — which means the problem you’re looking to solve is one of the top 3 problems your potential customers are experiencing.

Let’s say your (eventual) target buyer is the CEO of a small business. Their top 5 problems might look something like this:

  1. Generate more sales
  2. Get marketing running efficiently (hire a head of marketing)
  3. Outsource our payroll and benefits
  4. Increase our product selection
  5. Get better at social media and invest in Facebook ads

If you’re planning to launch a social media tool, you can see that’s NOT a tier 1 (top 3) problem for the typical CEO of a small business — it’s #5 on their list.

They’ll be so focused on solving their first 3 problems that you’ll never get a look in — EVEN if you have the best product, EVEN if you have the best support, etc.

They simply won’t have time (or budget) for you if you’re not solving a problem that’s top of mind for them — a tier 1 problem.

This is probably the hardest lesson to learn and the one most startup founders ignore — “But my product is so great, once they use it they’ll sign up for SURE!!!”.

So how do you validate that your problem is actually a tier 1 problem? First you need to know who might typically buy your product. You want to build a basic profile, like this:

  • Company size: 100–500 people
  • Role: CEO or VP of Marketing
  • Location: North America
  • Industry: Retail, Technology & Hospitality

You then want to come up with a list of 20–50 prospects who meet this criteria. The easiest way to get that list is to jump on LinkedIn and research. Then just connect with all of the prospects you find with a message like this:

Hi [name],

We’re hoping to spend 15 minutes on the phone with CEOs who are experiencing [problem]. We’re doing research and have nothing to sell. Would you be available for a quick call tomorrow at 3pm?

A few pointers here:

  • Be short and to the point — don’t waste their time
  • Include a specific day and time when you want to talk — avoids email ping pong
  • Reach out to 3x the number of prospects you actually want to talk to. So if you want to talk to 20, then message 60. Most won’t reply and some won’t be interested, etc.

Great. Now you’ve got at least 20 people ready to chat who are experiencing the problem you’ve identified.

(I realize I’ve dramatically simplified this step — but you’re an entrepreneur, so be creative and put in some hustle. If you don’t like talking to people on the phone then maybe this startup thing isn’t for you…)

Before your first call, you want to come up with about 10 questions to ask them. The entire outcome of the call is to validate:

  1. They experience the problem
  2. How painful it is for them (i.e. is it a tier 1 problem?)
  3. How they solve the problem now
  4. Would they pay for a solution to the problem

Collate the answers from all of your calls in a Google document, Evernote, etc. After 5 or so calls you’ll start to get a sense of whether this is actually a big problem or just a “nice to have”.

Never, ever build a startup that solves a “nice-to-have-fixed” problem. People will use your product but never pay for it.

Step 3— Properly determine existing solutions

One thing you’ll have after your 20+ calls is an idea of how they currently solve the problem. They might talk specific products/companies or might reference a company process, someone they outsource the problem to, etc.

It’s really important to drill in here on the call. Don’t ask “which product do you use to solve that problem today?” because they might not use a specific product.

Instead, ask “so how do you handle that today?” and just listen. They might use a product or they might hack together a bunch of tools or processes to solve the problem.

Generally speaking, you want to solve a problem where there are already other companies trying to solve that problem too. Most times that verifies you have a large enough market with a tier 1 problem — assuming at least one of the existing competitors is doing well (has traction, has raised money, has been around for a few years and is growing, etc).

Be careful if there are genuinely no companies trying to solve the same problem as you. Most times that means you’ve got no market or your problem is too specific to too few people. Specificity is good, but you need to counter-balance that with a large enough market.

Step 4— Look for pain in existing solutions

Whether they use an existing product or not, you really want to identify the pain in the current process of solving the problem.

If they use a product, what do they dislike about it? What is it missing? What do they need in that product to make their job easier/faster? You never want to launch a “me too” product.

It’s OK to have feature parity as a baseline, but that should only be 80% of your product. There should be at least 20% that’s better — not different just to be different, but distinctly better.

A clear benefit potential customers can see and understand when comparing your product to others. And one that you can position around after you launch.

If they don’t use a product to solve the problem, look at what they do use. Is it a combination of email, outsourcing and Dropbox, for example? Is it a manual process they employ 2 people full time to take care of? Search for the pain (time/complexity/cost/frustration) in that process.

Keep digging in until you can recite it back to them on the call.

OK, so just to recap you now have:

  • A clearly articulated problem
  • That is being experienced by at least 20 people you’ve spoken to
  • Where there is an opportunity to solve that problem in a better/easier/cheaper way (the 20% better we spoke about above)
  • And you can clearly articulate that 20% — which is why your solution will be better for them than existing products or processes

Step 5— Verify there’s a budget for a solution

If you have existing competitors aiming to solve the same problem, you can look at their traction. Are they growing fast? Do they have a sufficient volume of customers? Are they (or have they) raising money? Are they hiring? Look for clues of growth.

In most (not all) cases, that’s a great sign they not only have a good product, but are generating revenue and finding paying customers. Which means someone has a budget allocated for products like theirs (and yours).

You also want to set a second follow up with at least 10 of the prospects you spoke with on the phone and get their views on pricing. Not specific, “$5/user/month” pricing, but their initial reaction to paying for a solution to the product they told you they were experiencing.

You would start by recapping the problem and explaining your solution to them (spend extra time talking about the 20% — or why your solution will solve the problem better than anything else).

Next you just come right out with it:

“So if we build something that solved the problem in a way that I just explained, what would your thoughts be around pricing?”

You’ll get one of three responses:

  1. They’ll come right out and say they won’t pay for it
  2. They’ll be somewhere in the middle — non committal, if you like
  3. They’ll say they would pay for it

If they tell you they won’t pay for it or are somewhere in the middle, dig in a bit.

Why won’t they pay? Would someone else in the company? Is it budget? Are they on a 100 year contract with IBM for their existing solution? Do they just not like startups? Is the problem not really a tier 1 for them? Is it because it’s Monday and that’s their moody day?

After talking to at least 10 prospects on the phone about pricing, you want 5 or more to say yes to pricing. Not to a specific price, but yes to actually paying for your solution when it’s ready.

The huge caveat here is that having someone tell you they will pay for your product in no way, shape or form means they will. But it’s a good start and I guarantee it will stop you in your tracks for at least 50% of your ideas — if you have more than one.

Step 6— Use those prospects to define your roadmap

Assuming you solve a tier 1 problem that enough people will pay for, you now have a somewhat captive audience of 10/20/30/50 people.

If you decide to proceed with your startup (congratulations!) you now have a built-in audience you can talk to about features, wireframes, design, etc as you build out your product.

Eventually some of them might even become your first paying customers.

You have what I call a short feedback loop. And the best part? You’ve spent literally $0 to get to this point.


Next steps

From here you can proceed where most startup founders START — actually planning out the product and building your MVP.

That’s a whole post in itself, so I won’t talk about that now, but hopefully you can see that by taking a simple, step-by-step approach, you can quickly determine whether your idea has a chance to become a revenue-generating company — well before you write a line of code, hire a designer or raise money.

With the low barriers to entry with technology (and even lower cost), building a product in 2015 is easy. But a product does not make a company.

A company is comprised of customers who experience a problem that they will pay you to solve.

Don’t be seduced by the 0.0000000001% chance you can build the next Instgram or Snapchat. You probably can’t and you probably won’t — and that’s OK.

My preference has always been to solve problems for businesses — they are used to paying for software, so it’s a much easier sell when you launch.

Good luck!

Introducing Capital H Labs, My New Venture

Capital H Labs

I love building software and solving problems. When I received my first XT PC in 1995, I quickly taught myself QBasic and started building games and basic applications. There was nothing quite like the thrill of taking an idea and turning it into a working software application.

20 years later and that same thrill still gets me out of bed every morning, excited to go to work. I love seeing large problems and being able to solve them with software.

I spent the better part of the last 6 years doing that at Bigcommerce. I moved away from an operational role at the company earlier this year (we hired an incredible CEO to take the reigns) but still remain on the board.

When we started the company, I had experienced first-hand the frustration of trying to setup an online store. You either built your own (which I did, in ASP and SQL Server back in 2001), hacked together an open source solution or spent a few hundred thousand dollars on some mainframe-type goliath of a system that no one could use.

Fast-forward to today and setting up an online store is as easy as creating an account on Facebook. There’s a long way to go in the context of commerce, but in terms of our original vision, it’s mission accomplished.

I’m the most passionate about solving problems that I’ve experienced first hand. As we were scaling Bigcommerce from 2 guys working above a cell phone shop in Sydney into a company that today employs 500 people with well over 100,000 paying customers, I saw multiple problems that I felt could be best solved by software and technology — both inside the company (employee focused) and outside the company (customer focused).

Whenever I came across a problem or opportunity as we were building the business, I would write it down in an Evernote list called “Ideas” and store it away for later.

When I stepped away from Bigcommerce and was thinking about where I would spend the next chunk of my life professionally, I realized a few things:

  1. I am only really good at one thing — building companies
  2. I like building companies and it excites the hell out of me
  3. My biggest strength is on the product, people and marketing sides
  4. I have the energy and stamina to take an idea from my head, onto the drawing board, into the hands of a capable team and out to the real world for customers to use — I’ve done it 4 times before and want to do it a few more times

There are a handful of ideas from my list in Evernote that I’ve run through my “opportunity formula”, which is:

Problem + Market + Timing + Team = Opportunity

It’s was a tough decision, but earlier this year I chose the first idea to pursue. And so far that’s turning out great. The problem is clear, the market is large, current solutions are clunky and hard to use and most importantly, it’s a problem I’ve experienced first hand.

We’re in the final few weeks of development and will hopefully launch that company before the end of the year if all goes well. You can follow me on Twitter if you’re interested in the launch, etc.

At the same time as we’re getting our first company out the door, however, there are some other ideas we’re pursuing, and that’s where Capital H Labs comes in. It’s essentially a place where me and some incredibly smart engineers and designers are playing with a few ideas and concepts that have the potential to become important and turn into their own companies.

I was inspired by a talk Max Levchin (co-founder of PayPal), gave at Bigcommerce earlier this year and after looking closely at his HVFLabs “startup studio” model, I felt like a similar approach made sense for me. I was also inspired by Garrett Camp (co-founder of Uber) and his similar model at Expa.

Here’s the blurb from our (one page) web site:

Founded in April 2015, Capital H Labs is the umbrella project for all of Mitchell Harper’s (Twitter,LinkedIn) software projects. Its core thesis is that software with a strong focus on feedback (both employee and customer), automation and quantitative analytics can help companies grow faster and more predictably over time.

Capital H Labs generates ideas, conducts market validation and ultimately takes successful concepts through initial funding to prototype, beta and on to final launch, with successful launches being spun out into their own entities.

We will be launching our first company shortly, so follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn for upcoming announcements and news.

This is the start of a journey that I’m hopeful will launch some fun and important companies into the world. My motto since 2003 has been “build cool shit” and that’s exactly what I’m planning to do with Capital H Labs.

Follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn to keep in the loop.

Good Manager, Bad Manager.

Good manager, bad manager

The bad manager starts her one-on-ones with:

  • How’s the project going?
  • Why isn’t it finished yet?

The good manager starts her one-on-ones with:

  1. How are you feeling with the way things are going?
  2. Is there anything I can help you with?

The bad manager fires off another 10 questions, gets interrupted by his cell phone 5 times and ends early when his questions have been answered.

The good manager lets the rest of the conversation flow from their initial two questions and is open to answering a lot of questions.

The bad manager prepares for her one-on-one 5 minutes before it starts.

The good manager asks the 2 questions above BEFORE their one-on-one (via email, or some other way), so they have time to think about their answers first and really come up with solutions to any problems.

A few more things good managers do:

  • Make their one-on-ones about PEOPLE, not projects.
  • Get the hell out of the office —they do walking one-on-ones, go to a cafe or sit in the park.
  • Be vulnerable — they talk about their family, some personal goals and challenges, etc — they let their team “in” so they can learn more about them as a human, not a “boss”.
  • They coach instead of dictating what to do or reprimanding.
  • They know they are the #1 reason why anyone on their team quits. They know people leave their jobs because they don’t get along with their manager more than any other reason, including salary and impact.
  • They thank people during their one-on-ones for something they did since their last catch up. They don’t worry if it’s something small. They know it be will remembered and appreciated. But that’s not why they do it.
  • They know they’re in the people business and just happen to work at a software/retail/hospitality/insurance/design company. They know great leadership skills transfer to any company.
  • They see themselves as leaders (of teams), not managers (of people).
  • They know their profession is bringing the best out of their people and inspiring them to kick ass every day, even when the outcome looks bleak.
  • They focus on progressing the career of everyone on their team ahead of their own and know good things will happen to them as a result.

Bad managers don’t do any of the things listed above. They focus intensely on their own career and love internal politics. They use information as leverage and jump ship at the first sign of trouble.

Hire good managers. Let your competitors hire the bad ones.

Performance Reviews Are Killing Your Culture

Performance reviews are killing your company culture

Quarterly or (gasp!) annual performance reviews are toxic to a company’s culture. “But they’re better than nothing!” I hear you say. Not really, and I’ll tell you why.

It all comes down to two words – speed and communication. Sure performance reviews give your employees a way to share what’s on their mind, how they think they’re doing, etc, but the lag will kill your culture.

Performance reviews are what I call long feedback loops. Collecting feedback from your employees 4 times a year (quarterly) or once a year just doesn’t cut it anymore.

The time between asking and receiving insight is too long.

Long feedback loops

Let’s say Michelle in Marketing has a legitimate issue with how marketing dollars are being allocated. She has a great idea to improve spend and therefore drive down your customer acquisition cost.

Great, right? No. Here’s why.

Let’s assume you run quarterly performance reviews. The last question you ask your employees as part of that review is “What’s one thing we can do better as a company?”.

Michelle outlines her case for reallocating marketing dollars and can prove it will lower your customer acquisition cost. She even offers to manage the project, because she’s done the same thing at her previous company.

She shares her feedback on March 31st (the end of Q1). Her boss spends the next month waiting for everyone on her team to finish their performance reviews. We’re now at the beginning of May.

Michelle’s boss commits to reading all of her team’s feedback and completing her part of the performance reviews through the month of May.

At the last minute, Michelle’s boss is invited to speak at a conference on May 15th, so she defers the performance reviews until June. After all, she’s got to prepare for her keynote speech, right?

When she’s done with her speech and finally gets around to completing the performance reviews, we’re into the first week of July.

She loves Michelle’s idea, but this quarter’s marketing plan is already locked in and has been approved by the CEO and the board. “I’ll look at this for our Q4 marketing plan” she says.

This situation is extremely common. At first glance you might say “This is pretty normal at my company”. And therein lies the problem. This is a slow feedback loop.

So what’s happened here? Let’s look at the timeline:

  • March 31st: Michelle shares her idea to improve marketing spend
  • June 25th: Michelle’s boss finishes reviewing and completing performance reviews for her team
  • Sep 26th: Michelle’s boss reaches out to Michelle to hear more about her idea
  • Oct 1st: Michelle feels frustrated it took her boss 6 months to review her idea, so doesn’t bother sharing other ideas as part of her performance review

That’s 6 months from when Michelle shared her (brilliant) idea to when it was followed up. 6 months. This is a classic example of a slow feedback loop.

What happens when Michelle’s idea isn’t even acknowledged for 6 months? You can bet she tells her team mates. The word spreads throughout your company – “our management team don’t listen to us. We don’t have a voice.”. Before you know it, you’re getting slammed on Glassdoor for your “top down” culture and you start losing your best people, who take their best ideas with them.


So what’s the alternative? Like most bosses, Michelle’s boss got busy and her attention was placed elsewhere – rightly or wrongly.

Short(er) feedback loops

The trick to being an effective manager is to create incredibly short feedback loops with your team – ideally every week. Ask for less feedback but on a more regular basis.

Here’s how we do it at Bigcommerce. Short, to the point with both quantitative and qualitative questions:

Bigcommerce mojo survey

This approach is radically different to performance reviews and as you’d expect, it creates a radically different (overwhelmingly positive) response from employees.

Giving everyone an equal voice is one of the most important things you can do to create a killer company culture.

Back to our example with Michelle and her boss.

What if, instead of slow quarterly performance reviews, Michelle’s boss asked for weekly feedback?

Here’s how the events above might’ve played out:

  • March 31st: Michelle shares her idea to improve marketing spend
  • April 6th: Michelle’s boss reads last week’s feedback from her team and notices Michelle’s idea
  • April 7th: Michelle’s boss schedules a catch up to discuss her idea
  • April 10th: Michelle meets with her boss and tells her more about her idea, complete with data to back it up
  • April 15th: Michelle’s boss talk to her CEO and they agree to try Michelle’s idea starting in Q3. Michelle is assigned as the project lead.
  • Oct 1st: Michelle and her boss review Q3′s marketing performance and it’s off the charts. Michelle gets a promotion and the marketing team obliterates their KPIs

This is an overly simple way to compare and contrast long versus short feedback loops, but the results can be game-changing.

As your company continues to grow, it (literally) pays to spend some brain cycles thinking about how you can make internal communication faster and more fluent – at all levels. From the board all the way down to your individual contributors.


If your company is full of millennials (people born in the 1990s and 2000s) then this is even more important. They want everything now, including a voice and a way to be heard.

Millennials are also primarily driven by making an impact on the world and not salary.

Real-time is their default feedback loop (think Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc). Don’t be surprised if they laugh out loud or scratch their head when it comes to quarterly or annual performance reviews.

Remote and distributed teams

Short feedback loops are even more critical when your team is distributed across different physical locations. With co-located teams you can read body language, sit in on conversations at lunch, walk up to people and chat, etc.

That’s pretty much impossible when your team isn’t in the same physical location, so having regular, short feedback loops is vitally important to assessing how everyone is feeling and what’s slowing them down.

In summary

Kill your quarterly or annual reviews and opt for shorter feedback loops instead. The pay off is immense, you’ll improve your retention and your culture will go through the roof.

Featured image via Flickr

How To Deal With “Shit” As A CEO — Strategies For Managing Your Psychology

Founder psychology strategy

Building an important company over time has a lot to do with product, capital, team and market.

It has more to do, however, with what you (the CEO) tell yourself every day during those “internal conversations” that play out in your head.

CEO psychology is the most under-appreciated, yet most important part of building a company. It rarely gets any attention because it’s not “sexy”. But man is it important.

Everyone talks about startups being akin to rollercoaster rides. There are high highs and low lows. The highs are easy to deal with – you celebrate with your team, share the victories with your friends and partner and maybe even down a few beers that night.

What’s harder to deal with are the (seemingly constant) lows – when things don’t work out as you expect them to. Examples include having an important employee resign, a potential investor pulling a term sheet at the last minute, a competitor winning a big partnership deal and employees passing away.

All of these have happened to me at some point in the last 10 years. And the only way through all the shit is to make sure you talk to yourself every day – but in the right way. Not out loud, of course, but in your head.

There are also certain ways you can look at problems to quickly figure out if they’re potential “company killers” or if they’re just bumps along the way.

As a CEO, you need to find constant inspiration and rationale to move forward. That’s what I’m hoping to give you in this post.

Here are some “no bullshit” ways to manage your psychology as a CEO. Everything here comes from my direct experience over the last decade or so building Bigcommerce ($10B in orders, 100,000 customers, 500 employees, $125M in VC) and a few other companies.

1. Use best/worst/probable analysis when weighing decisions

Most things we fear never materialize, but we spend so much time stressing over the “what ifs”. An alternate approach is to look at decisions and problems rationally by creating a best/worst/probable case analysis.

It’s easy to do – create a spreadsheet with the following columns:

  • Outcome
  • Chance (%)
  • Stop
  • Start
  • Keep Doing

… then fill in the spreadsheet with 3 outcomes:

  1. Best outcome
  2. Worst outcome
  3. Probable outcome

Chance (%) is the chance of that outcome happening. It’s a percentage from 1 to 100. In the “stop” column, list the things you’d stop doing if that outcome came to fruition. In the “start” column, list things you’d start doing if that outcome came to fruition. In the “Keep Doing” column, list things you’d keep doing if that outcome came to fruition.

Pretty simple stuff, but writing down each possible outcome and looking at things objectively and rationally can help get the negative, fearful thoughts out of your head extremely quickly, especially when you realize the chance of the worst outcome actually happening is probably tiny.

2. Focus like crazy to make meaningful progress

Progress beats the crap out of fear. Every. Single. Time.

If you feel like shit, commit to spending the next 24 or 48 hours working your ass off to make meaningful progress on something that’s important to you – and it does NOT have to be about your business.

You could run 10 miles each day, spend more time with your partner, design a new product, write a 10,000 word blog post. Whatever it is, make sure the effort is rewarded with a legitimate feeling of progress in some area of your professional or personal life.

Feeling like things aren’t moving as quickly as they should be is the entrepreneur’s curse. You always want things to move faster and it’s easy to get frustrated when they don’t.

3. Know when to step away

Some days you’ll just feel down. It happens to everyone. On those days, don’t go into the office. Cancel your meetings. Spend time alone and do whatever takes your mind off things. Read, write, exercise, play video games. It doesn’t matter.

One big key to maturing as an entrepreneur is to know when you’re just not up to working as you normally would. It might be one day every month or one day every year. But tune in to your thoughts and feelings and don’t fight them. When you’re forcing yourself to work, it’s time to do the opposite.

4. Talk to someone and get advice

As an entrepreneur it’s normal to think you’re the only person who doesn’t know how to solve a problem. But most problems have already been solved by someone else. Instead of beating yourself up for not knowing the answer, talk to someone – ideally a mentor or coach, but if you don’t have one, post on Quora or

Don’t ever be embarrassed to share your problems and ask for help. The best entrepreneurs are the most vulnerable and the most opening to learning and listening to others.

5. Ignore your competition

Your closest competitor just raise $100M. Or they went public. Or they won a big customer. Or they hired a smart executive. Who cares?

Spending too much time thinking about your competitors will run you into the ground. Instead, dial up the time you spend with your customers. If you’re not spending any time with them, now’s a great time to start.

Just email a few and ask them to catch up for a chat. Ask about their business, how they use your product and what you can do to make it better. The main thing you’ll get out of this is real, authentic feedback from paying customers who LOVE what you do. And that positivity will rub off on you and how you feel. Trust me.

6. Watch Tony Robbins videos on Youtube

He’s the master of human psychology, plain and simple. Just go to Youtube, search for “Tony Robbins” and choose a few videos. After an hour you’ll feel like a different person and will get more clarity and a better perspective on what’s important and your current situation.

7. Compare your life today versus 5 years ago

Another easy one. Write down 5-10 things you have today that you didn’t have 5 years ago. This will bring about feelings of gratitude, which will help release dopamine – the “happy chemical” in your brain.

When you write this list, don’t list “stuff”. Write down things about your business, your family (wife/husband, kids), places you wanted to visit that you’ve been to, people you’ve helped, book and people that have changed your life, etc.

8. Realize it takes 7-10 years to make anything truly great

If you’re a few years in, you’re just getting started. 98% of big, important companies took at LEAST 7-10 years to make their first mark on the world. Building an enduring company is a marathon not a sprint. Step back and put this into perspective whenever short term problems are clouding your long-term view.

9. Go to your vice regularly

What’s the one thing you do that excites the hell out of you? It should take 100% of your focus and make you feel amazing when you’re done.

It could be exercise, sex, drawing, painting, public speaking, helping someone, volunteering, video games or cooking.

Whatever it is, do it regularly to top up your dopamine levels. If you don’t have a (healthy, safe) vice, spend some time to find one. Try a lot of new things and keep the ones that make you come alive.

What’s the worst thing that can happen?

Suppose your company fails. What’s really the worst thing that can happen? You have to start again? So what. Your lifestyle takes a bit of a hit? So what. Your pride gets crushed? So what. You have to tell investors you’ve lost their money? That’s hard to do, but they’ve baked your small chance of success into their models.

The odds of everything falling apart are so small that most times it’s not even worth considering – and that’s from someone whose been so close to the wheels falling off dozens of times in the last decade.

You might come close, but the wheels rarely, if ever, fall off.

The next time you feel down/upset/angry/frustrated/like shit, step back, be aware of how you feel and do whatever it takes to manage your own psychology – because in the end that’s really all that matters.

28 Things I’d Do Differently Next Time Around


I love reading blogs by founders who try to give back and share what they’ve learned building their companies, so today I’ll try and do the same.

When I look back over the last 15 years building 4 different companies (most recently Bigcommerce), here are some things I’d do different if I was to start another company, as well as a few things I wouldn’t change.

If you’re just getting started, keep in mind that it’s at least a 7-10 year journey, so when the going gets tough I found it can be useful to get some perspective from other founders who have gone down the same path.

Stay focused, be positive and know that even when you “get big” it’s still a roller coaster of ups, downs, highs, lows, fun and fu*ks. That’s why having a big, compelling vision and building a great team around you is so important.

Here’s my list. I hope you find it useful.

Things I’d do differently

  • Hire top down after the first 10 people
  • Invest in design (team or agency) from day one
  • Be tied to your vision and problem statement but not your approach
  • Define customer personas up front and segment by pain/needs
  • Focus on a single pain point and a single persona first
  • Do less, but do it better, especially in product and marketing
  • Start competing in a red ocean but try to redefine the market so it becomes a blue ocean
  • Don’t rely on a single lead source driven by high demand and limited supply
  • See your platform as multiple products not multiple features
  • Hire product managers with strong domain experience
  • Run a 6 month (minimum) closed beta and nail your USP (Unique Selling Point) before going live
  • Go for fewer customers at a much higher ACV
  • Tie a good amount of everyone’s bonus to a customer success metric
  • Build an open platform from day one (RESTful API, also consumed internally)
  • Be patient and work on a 5/7/10 year timeline – ignore competitors and focus on the market opportunity not feature wars
  • Listen to your gut more, especially when it comes to people – assume all resumes are B.S. and back channel at least 5 people who worked with, for and above each candidate
  • Listen to the entire organization (especially those in daily contact with clients) in a way that scales as you grow
  • Build a customer advisory board who are incentivized to provide valuable feedback often
  • Amplify the brand by building and remunerating a team of influencers
  • Understand the 4 styles of leadership and use each effectively depending on the person you’re leading
  • Know which stage your company is in (product market fit, getting ready to scale or scaling) and only read books/blogs related to that stage
  • Make sure all senior leaders have their own executive coaches
  • Listen to and respect opinions, but realize they’re just opinions
  • Don’t be emotional about the business – balance an intense focus on work with family, friends and fitness
  • Realize no one cares as much as you do, and that’s OK
  • Fire fast and be less forgiving of mistakes, especially in departments that are measured with raw numbers, like sales and marketing
  • Don’t speak at conferences – they’re a massive waste of time
  • Don’t assume everyone has honest intentions just because you do
  • Don’t beat yourself up because you make mistakes

Things I’d do again

  • Bootstrap to a MSP then raise a round as soon as you achieve product market fit
  • Recognize people for their achievements in front of the whole company on a regular basis
  • Solve a problem you’ve personally experienced and that you could work on for the next 7-10 years
  • Create a culture that’s different, unique and feels like the founder(s) of the company
  • Constantly ask yourself “who is the BEST person in the world to help me solve X?” and reach out to ask for help – know you can’t fix everything on your own
  • Negotiate hard on valuation to keep as much equity as possible, all the time – give way on terms before equity
  • Early on, raise money from investors who have “been there, done that” – don’t take money from “spreadsheet VCs” because they only understand numbers
  • Hire the best people, regardless of where they are and incentivize them heavily with equity
  • Personally answer as many support inquiries as you can for the first year
  • Own the product for the first year or two to make sure your vision is in the team’s DNA
  • Know who your real competitors are and pay attention but don’t let them distract you from your original vision
  • Be the face of your company and learn how to speak in front of large crowds
  • Be confident hiring people who are twice your age and realize the only place age is a barrier is in your head
  • Celebrate the good times but be brutally honest with everyone when things aren’t going well – and share your plan to get things back on track fast
  • Communicate your vision until you’re blue in the face, then keep talking about it
  • Do what you’re good at and delegate everything else to people who are much, much, much smarter and more experienced than you are
  • Know when it’s time to hire someone to replace you – get a deep understanding of your skills and passions and hire that person before you top out
  • Own the culture and continually shape what it means, reinforce why it’s important and fire anyone who breaches your core values
  • Have zero optionality – no “side project”, no job to fall back on, no plan B. Put your entire life into the company for 2 years then put your head up to assess where you are, how you’re going and decide if it’s time to crank it up or call it a day
  • Get good at pitching your vision and answering tough questions when you’re on the spot
  • Be a genuinely caring person and try to change the world from a place of humity, humbleness and honesty

How do you know when it’s time to fire a manager at your startup?

How to know when to fire a manager

For first-time entrepreneurs, leading and managing a team of people can be daunting. Yes you have a vision of where you want to take the company, but there’s a huge delta between having an idea and hiring a team to turn that idea into a company with products people will pay you for.

There are countless stories of companies that built great products but failed. And most of them failed for a similar reason – poor execution, or more specifically, not hiring the right people when they were needed.

A CEO’s job is really “just” 3 things:

  1. Set and communicate the vision with all stakeholders
  2. Have enough money in the bank
  3. Hire the best people you can

Point 3 is another way of saying that you also need to fire people you’ve hired who are poor performers. This, I’ve found, is one of the hardest things to do in reality – both for myself (during the early days of Bigcommerce) and for the first-time founders I advise.

So if we all agree that the best companies can hire and retain the best people – and that keeping poor performers around hurts you, your company, your customers, your employees and ultimately your culture, then how do you know when it’s time to fire someone in a management role, such as a manager, director, vice president or even a C-level executive?

I think this is a question that trips up a lot of first-timers. They constantly rationalize keeping a poorly performing manager on the team by sayings things to themselves like:

  • “She did so well at [previous company], maybe it’s my leadership style?”
  • “He helped scale [previous company] from [low revenue] to [high revenue], so maybe it’s our product?”
  • “She’s [older/more experienced/more connected] than me, what would happen to my company if I fired her?!”

Turning rational decisions into emotional ones it the biggest mistake you can make as a founder.

It sounds harsh, but there are frameworks for (almost) every situation you can think of when building a company. Knowing when to fire someone is the perfect example of when a framework or guidelines can help. It takes the emotion out of the equation and helps you make a rational decision.

Firing people is never easy (and it doesn’t really get easier) and it’s the hardest thing you’ll have to do as a CEO. But keeping poor performers on the team will eat at you daily and you’ll become stressed and miserable fast. Better to move them out and move on.

So here’s the framework I’ve used dozens of times to assess whether it’s time to fire someone in a management role. It comprises of two parts: leadership style and time.

Leadership Style

Management 101 teaches us there are four leadership styles you can use when managing people:

  • Coaching – hands on “this is how you do it”-type teaching
  • Directing – tell people exactly what to do and how to do it
  • Delegating – trust a person/people on your team to make a decision and execute
  • Supporting – acting as a sounding board and helping managers think through their ideas and strategy

When you’re a tiny startup, you’ll probably spend most of your time coaching and directing. After all, you’ve got limited cash, limited time and you have a very clear vision for what you and the other 3 people in your startup need to get done.

As time goes on and you hire dozens or hundreds of people, you’ll eventually build out a layer (or a few) of managers. Maybe you start top-down and hire VPs or C-level execs as soon as you raise your series A/B. Or maybe you go bottom-up and hire a few managers to get you by.

Either way, your management style for each leader can give you insight into which managers are doing a great job and which ones need training, clearer goals or need to be replaced.


Assuming you’re beyond product-market fit and into the “getting ready to scale” or scaling phase of growing your company (let’s say 30+ people with at least 3 managers, but typically 100+ people and 5+ managers), think about the manager(s) you spend the most time with where you’re leading by directing as opposed to delegating or supporting.

Let’s say you meet for 2 hours each week with your VP of Sales, Support and Marketing. The meetings go well and because you’re playing a supporting role here, you listen to their ideas, give them advice, things to consider, etc. Like Jack Dorsey says, you’re an editor, not a writer (video).


Let’s also say you meet with your VP of HR every week for 2 hours, but feel like that meeting is simply you telling him how to do his job. “We need to use this recruiting firm”. “I’d write the job ad like this”. “Go and talk to Joe at [company], he’ll show you how to handle benefits”. You’re taking more of a coaching or directing style of leadership here, definitely not a delegative or supporting one.

Let’s also say you spend 6 hours on average with your VP of HR, not 2, like you do with your other managers. And you come away from every meeting with him scratching your head wondering why you both seem to clash on everything.

“I may as well run the damn HR department!” you say to yourself on a regular basis.

In a situation like this, I’d raise the red flag. You either need to coach your VP of HR and give him a finite amount of time to meet the crystal clear goals you’ve given him (you have given him S.M.A.R.T. goals, right?), or you need to think about replacing him. Fast.

The Holiday Question

A final point I’d add here is something a former mentor once told me.

He essentially said that every time he goes away for a holiday with him family, he thinks about which of his leaders he was spending the most involuntary time with – in other words, where he was forced to spend his time to improve the business.

If that time wasn’t productive and the leader just didn’t get it (i.e. he had to continue to direct instead of delegate or support), he fires that leader and starts the search for a replacement immediately.

Remember that after the first 10 people, your growth, culture and future prospects are determined more by the people you hire (and keep around) than by yourself or your own efforts.

So hire slow, fire fast. Every time I’ve broken that rule it’s hurt. A lot.

How To Hire Software Engineers As A Non-Technical Founder

How to hire software engineers


Engineers are critical to the early success of a technology company, but what if you’ve got a great idea and aren’t technical? How can you go about bringing your idea to life?

Well, there are a few options. You could learn to code using Code Academy, but then there’s opportunity cost – you might pick up the basics of Ruby or Node in a few weeks or months, but during that time you could’ve hired an excellent engineer or two to build your MVP in half that time.

The second option is to find a technical co-founder. This is relatively easy when you’ve got some success behind you. Maybe you sold your previous company, have good relationships with a few investors with strong networks, etc. But if you’re a first-time non-technical founder, it’s hard. Really hard.

The third option is to focus all of your time and energy learning how to hire a great engineer or two. This is the option I’d recommend if you’re a first-time founder without a technical background.

I advise, mentor and invest in quite a few startups under the radar and I’m also writing this guide for them. Not every technology company needs a technical founder and not every successful technology company was founded by an engineer. Most were, but not all of them.

The key, then, is being able to 1) identify top talent and 2) convince them to join you.

Let’s start with identifying top talent. This is part art, art science. And it all starts with how you write your job ad.

Writing your job ad

Sure your first engineer needs to be good technically, but they need to be (almost) perfect culturally over and above everything else.

What do I mean by that? Well, you know the cliche image of a guy in a hoodie with headphones who just wants to sit in the corner and code? You’re not going to hire him – at least, not at this early stage.

You need to write your job ad to focus 70% on who the person is and 30% on what they can do technically. Most ads for engineers focus 100% on their tech skills and 0% on who they are.

By focusing on who they are first and foremost, you instantly turn off engineers who just want to code. And that’s exactly what you want to do. Again, there’s nothing wrong with those engineers, but your first engineering hire needs to want to communicate, brainstorm, be helpful and solve problems in a collaborative way.

Your job ad should be a series of hurdlers – or filters – that turn off 98% of engineers reading the ad. Because it’s the remaining 2% that you want.

So where do you start? Well, you want to keep your ad short. 500 words max in total. Start with an opening paragraph about what you’re building and why it’s important. Immediately after that, jump right in to the attributes you’re looking for in candidates. Some examples are:

  • Honest
  • Hard working
  • Friendly
  • Excellent communicator

List the top 5 attributes you feel are important to you as a founder and that you want to form the foundation of your core values (down the track, when you create them).

Next up, write a few bullet points or a paragraph talking about what a typical day will be like for them. In here you want to talk about a mix of technical and non-technical duties. This acts as another filter. One of the best things to include in this list is customer support. You want the kind of engineers who like customers, not those who are turned off by having to support them.

Round out your ad with benefits, perks and a few bullet points on the technology you need them to be proficient with. One final thing to do is really emphasize that learning is important. Languages and frameworks change so fast that you should aim to hire an engineer who is obsessed with learning.

Finally, including something like this at the end of your job ad:

To be considered for this role, please make sure you tell us your favorite place to vacation as part of your application.

As you start receiving applications and emails, this can help you figure out who read your ad and who simply mass-emailed you their resume. If there’s no mention of where they like to vacation (or anything else you want to include – have a bit of fun with this) then you know they didn’t even take the time to read your ad. If they can’t take a few minutes to read your ad, you shouldn’t hire them. Plain and simple.

Once you’ve written your job ad, it’s time to post it. Without a doubt, the best place to post your ad is Stack Overflow. I’d recommend posting it to a few different high quality, high reach job boards that are specifically focused on engineers and developers as opposed to the general job sites like Indeed or LinkedIn.

Filtering initial candidates

Once your job ad is posted, you’ll start receiving resumes, applications and emails within a few hours. Start by filtering out the ones who didn’t include an answer to where they like to vacation, or whatever question you used. Just go ahead and delete them right away.

For the remaining candidates, read their cover letter or email. You’re looking for excellent writing skills including grammar, spelling and punctuation. You also want their cover letter to be interesting and not cookie cutter. Look for candidates who have taken the time to email you from scratch as opposed to sending you a pre-written template.

How can you tell whether they’ve just copy-and-pasted you a pre-written email? It’s pretty easy. If they reference something specific in your job ad (like your tech stack, your location, your industry, your web site, etc) that’s a good sign.

If you need to hire an engineer in the same city as you (and you aren’t prepared to cover relocation expenses), then read through the resumes and delete any candidates who aren’t from your city.

Going through this process will typically give you maybe 20 candidates out of 100 that apply. The next step is to filter those 20 candidates down to 5.

Screening via video answers

For the 20 candidates left, you’re now going to ask them to record (via their web cam) answers to 3-5 questions. To do that, use Hirevue or Spark Hire - two great platforms that help you get a real sense of each candidate’s communication skills before you spend a minute of your time interviewing them.

What kind of questions should you have them answer? Focus on questions that tell you more about them as a person, such as:

  • What are you looking for in your next position?
  • What are 3 words you would use to describe yourself?
  • What are you currently learning outside of work?

After setting up the questions in Hirevue or Spark Hire, you’ll receive a link which you can share with candidates to see your questions and record their answers. Send each candidate a short email inviting them to answer your questions, like this:

Hi John,

Thank you for your application. From what I can see on your resume and application letter, I’d like to invite you to the next round, which involves answering a few simple questions via your web cam using Hirevue – an interview platform we’re using.

You can go here to see the questions and share your answers with us:
[link here]

Thanks and I look forward to seeing your answers.

The great thing about this hurdle is that it will turn 15 out of the 20 candidates off. And again, that’s what you want. If someone can’t invest just 10 minutes of their time to record a few short video answers, you probably don’t want them at your startup.

The good news is that between 3 and 5 of the candidates will answer your questions. You can then watch their video responses from the Hirevue or Spark Hire dashboards. Look for how they communicate as well as their body language and passion. Do they seem excited by the role or are they flat and disinterested?

From the 5 or so candidates that complete this part of the process, you can now choose the ones you want to interview. I’m a big believer that your first interview, regardless of whether you’re building a co-located or remote team, should be done over Google Hangouts or Skype. It saves both you and the candidate a lot of time and effort.

Initial interview on Google Hangouts

To organize these interviews, just email each candidate to let them know you’ve seen their video answers and that you appreciate the time they took answering your questions. Then offer 3 times over the next few days when you can meet with them on Google Hangouts. These interviews should be scheduled as 30 minutes in your calendar.

During this interview your one and only goal is to answer these 3 questions about each candidate:

  • Would they be a good cultural fit?
  • Are they committed to learning?
  • Are they a genuinely good person?

To get these answers, focus on asking bucket 2 questions. Get to know them as people. What’s important to them in life? What are their values? What do they teach their kids? Who do they spend time with when they’re not working? Who are their idols or mentors?

These interviews will narrow the initial 5 or so candidates down to 2 or 3. At this point, you want to assess their technical skills.

Assessing technical skills

The best way to assess an engineer’s technical skills is to have them complete a technical test. This acts as yet another filter and that’s by design.

You want to create a technical test that takes a few hours to complete. Don’t use multiple choice questions and don’t download one from the Internet.

Ideally you want to find a strong engineer who can help you craft a technical test in the context of 1) the job you’re hiring for and 2) the product you want the engineer to build.

If you don’t know any good engineers, use eLance or oDesk to post a job ad and find an engineer who can help you create the technical test. On eLance, most engineers take technical tests and you can see the results of those tests on their profile. Look for engineers with high ratings on the technologies you’re planning to use as well as excellent ratings for English – ideally those from North America, Australia or the U.K.

In 2-3 hours a great engineer can help you create a technical test that you can share with your shortlisted candidates. The test should focus on having each candidate create a project based on a real feature or use case of the product you’re planning to hire them to build.

The technical test should give them some information on your idea and explain in detail how one particular feature would work. Include wireframes or high-fidelity visuals for that feature and ask them to create that feature as part of your technical test.

If you have a tech stack in mind (such as Ruby on Rails, MySQL and CoffeeScript) then include that in your tech test as well, so you can assess their code using the same languages they’ll be using every day if you hire them.

Once each candidate has completed the technical test, you can pass their code to the engineer you know (or the one you found on oDesk) to have him/her review and rate it on a scale from 1 to 10. Ask the engineer to explain, in detail, what they liked (or didn’t like) about each candidate’s code and why.

The final step

So, you’ve shortlisted 100 candidates down to 3. They’re all great people with the tech skills you need – great. The final step is to setup a Google Hangout for 30 minutes with each candidate. On the Hangout, ask them to walk you through their technical test assuming you have no understanding of programming.

This is critical, because it does two things – first is shows you whether they can “dumb down” the explanation of their models, SQL queries, framework choices, etc and second, if they can explain technical concepts in lamens terms, it shows they’re more than just a “code monkey” – i.e. they’re a great programmer and a great communicator.

On this 30 minute Hangout your only goal is to see if they can actually explain the feature they built as part of the tech test in plain English. Start by asking them to walk you through their code and probe in a few places. Ask questions like:

  • Why did you name that variable like you did?
  • What does the code on line 93 do?
  • Can you tell me a bit more about the pros and cons of CoffeeScript?
  • What would you do differently if you did this test again?

At this point you might have a clear winner or even a few candidates you like. You can then go ahead and choose the best fit – which should really be the candidate you feel you’ll get along with and that your team (if any) will like and learn from.


Hiring great engineers is hard. Someone can be incredibly personable and fun in an interview only to write spaghetti code and argue all day with other engineers.

By walking through the process I’ve described in this post, you should be able to filter out most of those engineers to find the ones who are genuinely good people that value learning and collaboration while seeing engineering as their craft as much as their profession.

Good luck!

Focusing On Averages Will Kill Your Company Culture

Company Culture And Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS)

At a macro level there are dozens of ways to get insight in to how your company culture is changing as you grow – you can send quarterly or annual surveys using SurveyMonkey. You can ask for feedback via email. You can do anonymous Q&A at your all-hands meetings, etc.

But the problem with a macro level view is that it’ll tell you, on average, how your culture is and how your employees feel about the company. It’s the average you should be worried about. Instead, you should focus on the whole picture.

For example, if you use eNPS (Employee Net Promoter Score), you might get 64% which on average isn’t bad. But if you were to look across the spectrum of results in this example of a sample company with 414 employees, the eNPS result is deceiving:

Employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS) Sample

Here we can see that 317 (305 + 12) employees love working at the company and are extremely likely to refer their friends for open positions. Great, right? Yes, but what about the sum of all detractors, who are the employees that will go out of their way to speak negatively about your company and tell their friends to stay clear of open positions?

10 + 4 + 8 + 9 + 5 + 6 + 8 = 50. That’s 50 employees out of 414 who really, really don’t like working at your company. Again, on average, your eNPS is pretty good at 64, but ignore the detractors and there’s a good chance things will get worse over time and not better.

Employee Net Promoter Score surveys are typically anonymous, so you might be asking how you can turn those detractors in to passives and then promoters. Good question – and it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and experimenting with over the years.

At Bigcommerce, our mojo (which is our eNPS equivalent – remember Austin Powers and his mojo? Yeah, that’s where it came from) on average, has trended up over the years. There was an 18 month period where the wheels came off and it dipped quite a bit across all departments, but we managed to get it back on track and kept it on the up after that.

One big lesson we learned during the dip is that as you grow, it becomes necessary to add layers of management to effectively scale the company. While it’s fun to have 30 direct reports in the early days (ahhh, 2009), no one really likes doing that – founders tolerate it because we have to, but seasoned executives won’t. More growth means more layers: C-levels manage VPs who manage directors who manage managers, etc.

This layering can be dangerous and screw up your culture if anyone in that chain doesn’t fit in to your culture. I wrote previously that fast-growing companies don’t always get hiring right and we’re as guilty of that as anyone else. All of those layers make it harder and harder for founders or the CEO to keep a true pulse on the company’s culture.

The great thing about Bigcommerce, though, is that every member of the executive team obsesses over culture. And they each have their own ways of keeping their finger on the pulse.

The way that’s worked best for me over the years doesn’t scale. It isn’t sexy and you won’t read about it in Fast Company or on The Harvard Business Review blog. And I guess it evolved by accident more than by planning.

My approach simply involved meeting every month or two with about 6-8 different people in the company that 1) were not members of the exec team, 2) were individual contributors or managers, 3) were a good representative sample of the mojo in their team or department and most importantly, 4) would tell it to me as it is and not sugar coat problems.

During out meetings there would be no agenda and I’d just ask what was on their mind. We’d talk about a mix of subjects, from work to what they were learning, what I was doing and what I focused on, when they were next going to Austin or Sydney or SF (depending on which office they’re in), etc.

Besides flattening the company and learning a lot, I’d always leave with one or two nuggets of actionable insight that would help make a change to improve our culture. Doing this with 6-8 people every month or two really gave me a lot of insight. It led to all sorts of actions – people being promoted, fired, moved from one project to another (for good reasons or bad) and even me forcing people to take leave to just rest after a huge project was completed.

As I mentioned earlier, this approach isn’t “text book”. It doesn’t scale, takes a lot of time and can uncover things you don’t really want to hear about people in your company. But man, it’s effective.

The important thing to getting this right is to meet with people who are a good representation of their peers and who have a realistic (not pessimistic, very important) view of their team, department and the company as a whole.

If you end up meeting only with people who are detractors then you’ll leave each meeting feeling disheartened – so choose wisely.

Another important point here is to be yourself and speak openly and honestly about challenges and opportunities in the company. When shit hits the fan, tell them why and get their perspective on the problem and even what they think you should do to fix it. Good advice comes from everywhere in a company, especially individual contributors who are passionate about seeing your (their) company succeed.

For me, these meetings are fun and very informative. They help put things in to perspective and give me valuable insight I couldn’t get from surveys or our executive team. If you’re at the point where you can no longer meet with all of your people one-on-one, then this approach will give you more actionable insight in to your company culture than anything else.