How One CEO is Scaling Culture in a Growing Tech Startup

How One CEO Is Scaling Culture In A Growing Tech Startup - Leadspace

The term “startup culture” has taken the trip around the block and back again (and again) in recent years. Typically, it conjures up mental images of a few bleary-eyed twenty-somethings huddled in a small room (or garage), beer cans strewn about and a stale sandwich sitting on a plate in the corner. The term is used equally to describe the wonderful aspects of many a tech startup as well as some of the less than glamorous sides of the scene.

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What I’ve Learned In Ten Years as a Bootstrapped Entrepreneur

What I've Learned In Ten Years as a Bootstrapped Entrepreneur

2006 was a memorable year for a lot of reasons. Facebook opened its doors to the general public. Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi during the World Cup Final. And for some reason, Americans paid a total of $62 million to watch Snakes on a Plane.

But the most important event for me in 2006 was founding my company, gothamCulture.

Last month marked my company’s ten-year anniversary. And as I reflect upon my journey of bootstrapping and growing a professional services firm, I came to the conclusion that what I’ve learned might benefit other entrepreneurs out there who may be growing their own businesses.

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What Are The Greatest Priorities For Rapidly Growing Companies?

What Are The Greatest Priorities For Rapidly Growing Companies?

Leading a successful, rapidly growing organization can be one of the most thrilling, liberating and stressful things a person can do. Those of us who have taken the plunge into the world of entrepreneurship know, firsthand, that this life is anything but boring.

As I’ve watched my business grow over the years, I’ve often reflected on the sheer number of decisions I made each day and the priorities that had to be juggled in order to stay nimble in the face of tremendous competition. And I’m not alone.

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How Two Military Spouses Found Success in Entrepreneurship

r. riveter cofounders

A few weeks ago, I wrote a special Veterans Day piece focusing on a small, but growing, community of entrepreneurs that have gone largely unnoticed in American society: military spouses. I was so impressed by the women that I met with during my research that I decided to write a follow-up article showcasing, specifically, how two of these career-minded military spouses are finding innovative ways to launch and grow entrepreneurial ventures and employ other spouses despite their challenges of having to pick up and move, often internationally, every few years.

For decades, choosing the life of military spouse meant that women (over 91% of military spouses are female) usually had to give up any career aspirations in lieu of their husband’s career. With constant moves and the responsibilities of taking care of children while alone, military spouses found it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pursue professional careers. These spouses were often forced to take jobs well below their education levels and their professional ambitions in order to support their military families—until now.

A growing number of military spouses are now finding entrepreneurship to be a viable solution, giving them the flexibility to create “mobile businesses” that they can manage and grow from wherever the military may take them. Rapid advances in technology have made this possible and these innovative men and women are figuring out ways to have it all as they continue to support their soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

While these innovative models are providing entrepreneurial and employment opportunities, they also come with their own set of complexities, including- managing a remote workforce, maintaining high-levels of quality, and keeping people informed and engaged across great distances.

After my last article about the MilSpo Project, a not-for-profit dedicated to supporting military spouse entrepreneurs with education and local support at over 30 local chapters around the globe, I decided that this subject warranted some deeper exploration. Not just because I’m a veteran and I understand the struggles that military spouses face, but because these entrepreneurs are breaking down the longstanding barriers that have existed for career-minded women and men who were unable to fill the professional void in their lives.

The founders of one such company, R. Riveter, are a shining example of military spouse entrepreneurs that have not only created an innovative business model to fit their lifestyle, but are also providing mobile job opportunities to other military spouses.

Who is R. Riveter?

 

r. riveter cofounders
The Co-Founders of R. Riveter: Cameron Cruse and Lisa Bradley

R. Riveter, based in the small town of Southern Pines, NC, is the entrepreneurial creation of Lisa Bradley and Cameron Cruse, both spouses of Army soldiers. The name is a nod to the World War II cultural icon Rosie the Riveter who represented the factory-working women of the era. But these Riveters (what they call their employees) are creating gorgeous, American handmade bags, purses and other products (they even have a line for your favorite four-legged friends).

What’s so amazing about the women of R. Riveter is not just the quality of their products or the fact that they are handmade here in the good old USA. The real story here is how they’ve created a business model that works for their unique lifestyle.

Here are the need-to-knows about R. Riveter:

  1. All of their products are handmade by military spouses and those with a connection to the military. Cruse and Bradley first conceived of their business concept while living in Dahlonega, GA where their husbands were stationed. Frustrated that they could not pursue their professional aspirations the way they had envisioned, the two set out to create their own company to meet their need as well as the gap for other military spouses whom they now employ. That was four years ago. R. Riveter has now grown to a staff of 15 and a subcontractor workforce of 12 located around the country.
  2. R. Riveter jobs are completely mobile. Borne out of necessity as their employees were forced to relocate their families to new duty stations, the team at R. Riveter wanted to make sure that their team members could continue to keep their jobs. In order to give these Riveters the mobility and flexibility they would need, they created a subcontract workforce who can relocate anywhere in the country while still contributing to the cause. These subcontractors make the parts and pieces which are then shipped to the company’s NC fabrication shop to be assembled.
  3. All of their products are made from upcycled military equipment. From wool blankets secured from West Point to canvas totes made from old army tents, these entrepreneurs are using preexisting military excess materials to make their products. “We both graduated from programs that had a focus on sustainability so using surplus military materials met several of our goals in terms of keeping the military connection and in allowing us to breathe new life into these surplus materials,” Cruse says.
  4. R. Riveter produces both limited edition items made in small batches from materials they are able to source as well as a signature line that serves as the company’s permanent offerings made of military canvas, which is extremely plentiful. Their heirloom collection allows for total customization. You provide the military material and they turn it into a one-of-a-kind piece that lets you honor your veteran in a unique way. From old uniforms to blankets, the craftsmen at R. Riveter can create a product that has special meaning to their customers.

As more military spouses turn to entrepreneurship, we’ll likely begin to see creative business models being developed that allow for mobile jobs that align with the military spouse lifestyle.

“As we turn our attention toward scaling the business and national growth,” says Bradley, “we want to stay true to our original mission of providing the highest quality products made in America while also providing job opportunities to military spouses.”

My hat is off to the women of R. Riveter and to the other military spouses around the globe who are not compromising their career goals because of the challenges of a mobile lifestyle. This holiday season, consider supporting one of these fantastic businesses and you’ll be taking a tangible step towards helping military spouse entrepreneurs succeed. If you’re an entrepreneur yourself, consider not only how you might learn from these pioneers but also how you might support their efforts as they continue to break new ground and drive toward the American dream.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

The Rise of Military Spouse Entrepreneurs: What You Need to Know

military spouse entrepreneurs

Veterans Day is our annual tradition of pausing for a few moments to acknowledge those men and women who have shouldered arms in defense of our nation. But with only 0.4 percent of the American population currently serving on active duty in the Armed Forces and a scant 7.3 percent of Americans alive today having ever served in their lifetimes, the majority of people in this country have no firsthand experience of the true sacrifice that these men and women have made.

What’s more, most people are largely unaware of the immense sacrifices that military families (1.8M strong as of 2014) make in supporting these service members. Many have endured over a decade of constant deployments to combat zones and an operational tempo that would quickly put the idea of work-life balance into perspective for civilians here at home.

military spouse entrepreneursCareer minded military spouses (91% of whom are female) face the added challenge of maintaining careers while relocating every few years. This mobile lifestyle oftentimes includes moves overseas, which can make finding and holding professional jobs extremely difficult. As a result, a growing number of these military spouses have taken the skills they have developed managing military families and translated them into businesses that move with them when the military relocates their families to the next duty station.

Nicole Hope, co-founder of the Military Spouse Project or MilSpo Project for short, is one of the unsung leaders at the forefront of this issue.  Her organization is taking a proactive approach to supporting this previously underserved demographic of military spouse entrepreneurs.

In the first year and a half of the organization’s existence, they have opened a stunning 30 local chapters located across the globe. Providing a combination of local chapter support, an annual conference and remote learning initiatives, the Milspo Project is able to provide education and support to hundreds of military spouse entrepreneurs who reside around the world.

“There is a huge population of military spouses who are very career motivated, but have had to set aside those aspirations in support of their service-member spouses,” says Hope. “The Milspo Project wants to be the premier resource for these spouses should they choose to get creative about balancing all of these demands by becoming entrepreneurs.”

Historically, military spouses have had to forgo professional careers in support of the highly mobile military life. Thankfully, advances in technology and the realization that entrepreneurship is a feasible path for many military spouses has created a groundswell of well-intended, resourceful and educated women who are moving past the hardships of military family life to create scalable businesses that provide job opportunities for others in their communities.

Take Ashley Thompson for instance, owner of Pressed, a purveyor of uniquely curated stationery, gifts and artisan made items based in Fayetteville, NC. Thompson shared that military spouse entrepreneurs, “face so much uncertainty in their future plans and really must be ready to change everything at a moment’s notice.” She also suggests that this constant possibility of change provides these entrepreneurs for success by instilling in them a certain resilience that comes from the fact that they must become, “really good at picking up the pieces and moving forward over and over again.” Thompson has prepared her business for her inevitable moves by hiring and training a management team to run her brick and mortar store upon her departure. The internet also enables her to continue her sales from wherever she and her family may end up.

Lindsey Germono, another entrepreneur and member of the Milspo Project, finds that the networks she has developed have helped her and other military spouse entrepreneurs “tap into support systems and local organizations for networking and for understanding the local market of their new residence.” Germono has overcome the hurdles associated with military life by starting her own advertising firm, Germono Advertising, out of her husband’s current duty station in Norfolk, VA. Germono values the strong support networks that the military thrives on and says that although there may be many things about military life that are outside of your control, support systems such as the Milspo Project help entrepreneurs thrive no matter where they may relocate.

Several large brands have stepped forward with meaningful efforts to provide veterans and military spouses with employment opportunities in the last few years. Starbucks, for example, committed to hiring 10,000 transitioning veterans and military spouses by 2018. But some military spouses have selected the alternate path of entrepreneurship as their way to fulfill their career goals. Together, these efforts afford those who serve multiple opportunities for career fulfillment and economic progress, regardless of their specific goals.

On Veterans Day we take time to acknowledge those who have served in our nation’s defense. I’d ask that we all take a moment to acknowledge those military families that sacrifice as well. They are working every day in support of our servicemen and women by developing thriving, scalable businesses that can weather the unique challenges that military families face.

Thank you all for what you do in making our country great.

This article was originally published at Forbes.com on November 11th. 

Why Values (Not Perks) Define Your Startup Culture

values perks define startup culture

Entrepreneurship has exploded in the U.S. market in recent years. According a recent Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report, there are now over twenty four million entrepreneurs in the U.S., making up 14% of the total population.

There may be a number of contributing factors to this trend. Entrepreneurs are often cited as modern day adventurers and explorers. They are willing to takes risks and push innovation. And for many, they exemplify the American Dream. That is, everyone has the opportunity to be successful, no matter how you started or where you might be from.

Unfortunately, glamorizing entrepreneurs—while flattering—doesn’t tell the whole story of what founding and growing a sustainable company entails.

Despite the number of entrepreneurs in the U.S., the country now ranks 12th among developed nations in terms of business startup activity. American business deaths now outnumber business births, according to Gallup and the U.S. Census Bureau.

source: Gallup
source: Gallup

As a leader of a growing startup, there are some brutal realities to face. These can include challenges obtaining capital to drive growth, an inability to attract the right talent, or the constant struggle of trying to manage an organization that looks fundamentally different every six months.

In order to grow a successful organization, knowing where to spend your limited resources is critical to success. Startups—especially in Silicon Valley—are often lauded for their culture. And unfortunately, “culture” in this case is many times defined by a set of borderline unbelievable perks.

You Are Not Your Perks.

With so much on the line for your growing business, you cannot put your perks above what you value. Perks seem great at the start, but they tend to lose their luster over time, leaving you with little of substance to sustain engagement, excitement and purpose.

With competitors grappling to offer some wild new perk in an attempt to attract talent, companies are getting sucked into a doom loop. Everyone will end up losing as they try to keep up with the Jones. The perks that were once on the cutting edge become the standard expectation, which only serves to put startups in an even worse position to compete for talent and sustain growth.

Additionally, many startups lack the capital to offer these types of perks, let alone sustain them over time. This puts them at a disadvantage compared to their larger, more established competitors.

Finally, perks and incentives are, by their nature, a manifestation of the core values of an organization. By offering endless perks, startups can send messages about what is valued that may have unintended consequences in the long-term. This can be a real problem if those messages are in conflict with your core beliefs or if those perks are being used as a replacement for core values.

By defining your values and culture based on the perks you offer, you’re sending the message that your company values following the latest trends rather than a being intentional about the deeper beliefs of your company culture. Employees may be left without any clear direction for how business should be done, how customers should be served and what it means to be a member of the team.

This is not to say that all perks are bad. Quite the contrary. Perks can help reinforce meaningful values and help drive the behaviors that are required to yield success in the next chapter of your startup’s journey. When used thoughtfully, in conjunction and in direct reinforcement of your organization’s core values, these perks can prove to be both sustainable and truly meaningful.

Rallying your team around a meaningful purpose and supporting that with appropriate perks is not only a more sustainable way to drive growth. It ensures that the people you attract are people who are joining you for the right reasons.

Values can have deep and lasting meaning for people, giving them a higher purpose. This is something that perks alone can never do.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

 

What Every Founder Needs To Know About Scaling Startup Culture

scaling startup culture

For startups that want to stick around, growth and sustainability are the goals. But growing like Facebook or Twitter is far more difficult in reality. According to the Small Business Administration, only about half of all new businesses even survive to reach their fifth birthday. Only one-third of those make it to the 10-year mark.

Scaling a startup is no small feat. It takes clarity of vision, a feasible business model and a team who’s up to the challenge of operating in an extremely fast paced environment where dynamics change continuously. It also takes guts on the part of the founders and initial team members. These types of people risk a lot by taking a chance on a new startup. The nebulous nature of these situations can be too much for many people to bear.

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Unshackling Silicon Valley From Its Golden Handcuffs

golden handcuffs

Silicon Valley is known for its buzzwords around corporate culture, having adopted (or been labeled with) such terms as “bro culture”, “work hard/play hard culture” and “culture of failure.” Startups that operate at breakneck speed, encouraging all-night hackathons and weekend work retreats, are often held up as shining examples for aspiring young entrepreneurs to follow on the road to success. But the reality is not quite so appealing for those who don’t fit into the strict tech mold, and who don’t buy into the assumption that the only way to succeed is to sell your soul.

Many startups unknowingly reinforce these types of behaviors as they work to keep up with the Joneses (or keep up with the Facebooks in this case). In Silicon Valley’s war for talent, benefits and perks in tech companies have reached a fever pitch, all in the spirit of encouraging employees to stay as close to the company campus for longer.

The “golden handcuffs” that tech companies use to lock down their talent—the beer in the break room, catered lunches and office yoga classes—are beginning to come under fire as tactics for these companies to attempt to squeeze extra hours (and hopefully, productivity) out of some of their most valuable resources; their people.

This is not the case for everyone, however. There are those in the industry who have been intentional about growing their companies in ways that seem to go against the crowd. One such company is npm, a venture-backed startup based in Oakland, CA with over 2.7 million developer users and several major enterprise customers including Wal-Mart, Blizzard, Docusign and Autodesk. The company eliminated catered lunches at the office in favor of company-sponsored outside lunches. Employees are encouraged to prioritize family, and discouraged from working extreme hours or weekends.

I recently had an opportunity to chat with npm’s CEO, Isaac Schlueter to learn about his personal challenges with the tech stereotypes and what he is doing to grow a successful tech startup by bucking the system. Here’s what he had to say:

CC- Tell readers a little bit about npm, what you do, and how you got started.

IS- Before npm, I worked for a handful of well-known software companies like Yahoo and saw a bunch of different approaches to managing a company’s culture over the years.

When I started npm in 2014, I wanted to make sure that we were very intentional about who we were and the way in which we would operate. Many of these values stemmed from my own personal values and, surprising to many, some of these ways of working are in direct misalignment with some of the typical tech startup stereotypes and assumptions about how to succeed.

CC- In your words, what are Silicon Valley’s “Golden Handcuffs”?

IS- Some see the typical benefits associated with tech companies as key in attracting and retaining talent. Others see them as ways to keep driving people toward productivity.

The term golden handcuffs bugs me because it holds several meanings. In one sense, it is defined purely in terms of financial compensation. At npm, we have a bonus-vesting program but we don’t want to provide that along with an expectation that people need to stay in the office for an unhealthy amount of time.

golden-handcuffsI once worked for a company (now out of business) that had catered lunches. But I rarely took part, as I prefer to get up and go outside to get lunch. It gives me a chance to take a mental break. It was against the norms of that culture, and people would often ask me if was okay (thinking that something obvious must be wrong with me to make me leave the office to take a break) whenever I left the office to get lunch. There, people would pile food on their plate and sit down to keep working. Catered lunches were supposed to help with productivity, but without taking a pause, these people tended to make worse decisions in the end.

This is a really hazardous situation with startups. There are always urgent things to deal with and you have to be able to make smart decisions about what urgent things you will prioritize and what you’ll have to live with letting slip by. The ability to think strategically is a matter of life and death and driving continuous, long hours increases the risk of making poor decisions, in my opinion.

CC- How, specifically, do you want the culture at npm to be different? And how are you and your team supporting these goals?

IS- One thing that we did to manage the pressure to work more was to establish an explicit no working on weekends or after-hours policy.

This is a clear set of guidelines about when people are expected to be working and not. Leaders have to live it and set the example for others to make it real for people. And when people do work late or over the weekend despite the policy, we give them feedback, acknowledge their efforts to go above and beyond and encourage them to take a day off the next week. How we as leaders react to behavior reinforces certain things in our company and we have to be ever mindful of that.

Second, our values play out in the day-to-day, which helps shape the culture. For example, we try not to talk over each other in meetings. We keep meetings small, and use a talking stick to help keep conversations inclusive. If more than five people are in attendance, we appoint a moderator to make sure everyone is heard.

This process of slowing down and getting all of the data helps with our decision-making quality and promotes a more grownup approach. It may take longer to make a decision up front, but I don’t want to work in a place where the person who beats their chest loudest is the only one who’s heard. It’s not good for quality decision-making.

Third, unlike many tech cultures, at npm we focus on processes and not people. What I mean by that is there’s not a lot of hero worship going on. We value our people but we focus our attention on refining our processes to help everyone shine, rather than rewarding individual efforts.

A final difference is that we don’t foster a culture where people need to drink with the boss in order to get ahead. I’m sure there are a few beers in the fridge in the break room but alcohol is not a centerpiece of our culture. We realize that there are highly experienced, professional tech workers out there who have families and active social lives outside of work and that many of these people are not interested in working in organizations where those types of behaviors are required to succeed.

We’ve been very intentional about saying that we are different in this way and, while it may prevent certain people from applying to work with us, we attract and retain those people who want what we have to offer.

CC- Why is it important to put your employees work-life balance at the forefront of your employee’s benefits?

IS- In almost any modern company, things have become so cheap that the biggest investment is usually in the people. As business owners, we often feel like we have to get the most out of them as possible. The fatal assumption most people make, however, is that working people harder and harder will yield better results. Unfortunately, more is not necessarily better. It’s counterintuitive, but in order to get the best out of your people you may want to stop driving so hard.

There are a huge variety of problems that stem from pushing these high intensity cultures. People make worse decisions, it drives a pressure to engage in less ethical behavior, etc. You’re now paying a premium for people who are giving you less than 100% in return.

CC- How has your culture at npm impacted your company’s performance?

It’s extremely difficult to measure software development performance. For example, measuring people’s performance based on the number of lines of code they produce just tells you who’s typing more; not who’s making good software.

When starting npm, I had an opportunity to be very methodical and deliberate about the culture and what we stand for. We looked at what we were and where we wanted to go, and realized that we didn’t need to rapidly spew out prototypes.

I stepped back and asked, “what kind of company do I want to work at?” I had observed in previous companies I’d worked at that better ideas were coming out of more introverted environments. Open bars and free lunches didn’t ever make me feel as good as doing great work and living a better and more fulfilling personal life outside of work.

But, the surprising thing is npm has moved faster than any other software team I’ve been a part of. It seems counterintuitive, but by having a strong foundation and clear expectations about how we will get our work done, it actually saves a ton of time in the end.

Hiring is easier here than any other job. npm has great brand recognition among developers. We have lives outside of work. There is a small, noisy minority who hates the idea, but the overwhelming majority of people in the industry are seeing the value and are very attracted to our culture. We see a high caliber of very diverse applicants applying all the time as a result. That breadth and depth of experience would be unattainable without actively supporting the work-life values that we have in our culture.

While there is certainly no shortage of deeply rooted beliefs and assumptions about how tech startups rise to glory, there also exists a subset of tech CEOs who are bucking the trends and stereotypes, intent on proving that there are still better ways to do things that yield the same or better results in terms of performance.  Time will tell as these new practices impact behavior and long-term results, but one thing is for sure: there is no silver bullet recipe that works in all situations.  My conversation with Isaac reinforced for me the critical importance of being intentional about what you stand for and how you align your ways of working with what’s most important to you as a leader.

 

This article originally appeared on Forbes