granttree

Is the TSB website up to scratch?

Those who left it to the last minute today to file their TSB applications will have been in for a bad surprise: for a couple of hours, the site gave errors about 95% of the time, if not more. Every click on “Next” had to be repeated 20 times before it finally displayed the next page.

However, TSB themselves do advise that you should not leave submissions to the last minute. So, really, although this is definitely not desired behaviour (and I’m sure the good folks at TSB don’t like it anymore than you do), you can’t say you weren’t warned. If the errors drove you nuts, the officially GrantTree-approved brand of tranquillisers to calm down after this experience is Tranxene (we’re not getting commissions… yet!).

As for us, we had all our clients’ applications loaded up into the website for some time, so this morning, the only formality was to finalise a couple of details and submit - that can be achieved even when 95% of your clicks give an error (“Sorry, there has been an error in the website.”).

But is the website up to scratch in general?

I think it is, but at the same time there are a few weird or bothersome issues with it that, perhaps, should be corrected some time in the future. These are not major, critical issues, but they are the kind of things that can really stress people out when submitting at the last minute, particularly people who have not been through the process before (which I guess includes most applicants).

1. Field size

The character length for the answers is often a tight, snug fit, once an application has been worked on for a solid week or more. The most common length for one of our answers is between 2997 and 3000 characters, and by the time we’re ready to submit, each answer is packed with information and written extremely concisely. So it’s usually a pretty bad surprise to discover that the TSB website somehow counts characters differently.

We haven’t yet been able to figure out why this happens (there are no special characters that I can see, and the newlines are not counting as double), but it appears that a 3000 character text in, say, Google Docs, will often add up to some 3020 characters on the TSB site. 20 characters may not seem like much, but when the text is tight and ready, it can take a good 5-10 minutes to figure out where to get rid of a few words to get the text to fit.

2. XLS? Not here!

Perhaps it’s something to do with the fact that GrantTree uses the Mac version of Excel, but despite saving in the original Excel 1997-2004 format that the TSB website uses, we have yet to successfully upload the GRD finance form back into the TSB website.

Luckily, Excel can print, and Macs can print to PDF - so the solution, so far, has been uploading a PDF rendering of the spreadsheet instead. However, at the last minute, this is a pretty bad surprise. Even on a Mac, rendering that spreadsheet to PDFs takes several precious minutes.

3. Order, shmorder

If you’re serious about filing a grant application, chances are you’ll work on it outside the TSB website before pasting it in. We started by using Word for this, but in the end settled on Google Docs, because of its powerful collaboration features.

Now, if you’re going to prepare a document to work on, you want it to look exactly like what the assessors will be reading - with sections in the same order, etc. For some bizarre reason, this is not the order that the TSB site presents to the applicant.

First, the project summary (presented first on the website) is lost somewhere in the middle of the actual application as seen by assessors. This actually makes sense, since the summary is not meant to be rated, so this puts it back in a less prominent place (and, simultaneously, makes the first paragraph of the business opportunity section the single most important bit of writing in your whole application). But it’s a bit confusing the first time you go through it.

More perversely, the risks and innovation sections are swapped. So if you prepare your application “in the order in which it will be read”, and then quickly copy and paste this into the website form, there’s a good chance you might swap the two sections if you’re a bit distracted. I wonder what the thinking was behind that.

4. Undisclosed disclosure

At the end of the application, after you’ve validated it, you are presented with three more questions. Those are just formalities, but depending on the company structure they could require complicated answers. For example, any medium firm will probably have directors who own shares in other companies, and getting a full list of all their external involvement could take a day or two. If you only find out about the disclosures at the last minute (because you never clicked past “validate”, for fear of submitting the application early), this can be a very bad surprise.

It seems to us that these questions should be before the “validate” function, to reduce the surprise to people going through the application for the first time.

Conclusions

On the whole, though, as I said earlier, the website works. You can submit applications, with a bit of patience. So far, we have not failed to submit any application. But, for now, the website is not quite as user-friendly as one might like, so be sure to follow TSB’s advice and aim to submit a few days before the deadline, rather than in the last hour.

In any case, good luck to all the applicants in the round that just closed! And if you didn’t manage to make it in time, there’s always Tranxene!

How Fighting Female Genital Mutilation Helps Me Celebrate My Own Womanhood

***

A guest post by Paulina Sygulska. Paulina is a serial entrepreneur, a cofounder of GrantTree, a philantrophist and a bit of a networking junkie!

***

Right now, you can’t look without seeing people throwing ice buckets over their heads in support of the ALS charity (also known as Motor Neurone Disease). A few months ago, it was the same with the anti Female Genital Mutilation campaign - it seemed to be everywhere. When this happens, it’s great to heighten a cause or a charity and goes a long way to raising both awareness and funds, but it can be a double edged sword. People can ‘gloss’ over the cause itself, and some I’m sure are doing ice bucket challenges without even understanding why. Then, like most ‘hot’ topics, they go off the boil to be replaced with something else … then what happens?

Keep reading

Why transparent salaries make sense

Yesterday, an article by Joel Gascoigne of Buffer set Hacker News alight with discussion. Arguments against transparent salaries abounded. People felt it could only lead to harm, and pointed to numerous hypothetical or even very tangible scenarios where having open salaries would cause serious problems. Some of the arguments opposed public disclosure, but most seemed to oppose any disclosure whatsoever.

Joel’s article was a great spark to light the powder keg, but it did not properly answer an important question: why?

GrantTree has been running with full (internal) transparency of salaries since day one, since we hired the first person. This happened first because I felt it made intuitive sense, but over time, I’ve had the chance to notice many reasons why this makes sense. Here’s what I believe is a fairly strong set of arguments supporting open salaries. I will not try to support public, external disclosure of salaries because I have no direct experience of that, but I have pretty well-formed opinions on the benefits of internally transparent salaries by now.

Transparency

Transparency is almost a buzzword by now. For startups, it seems like one of those key things that you have to do to be part of the crowd, a universally “good” value that everyone should adopt to some extent.

The killer is in the “to some extent” part, though. Being a little bit transparent is easy. Communicate more, be a bit more open, and there you go. Instant transparency in a friendly package that has almost no effect on your company culture.

But having transparency as a core company value (as we do) does not mean simply being a little bit more communicative with your staff about various things happening in the company. That’s not transparency, it’s just common sense. In a commercial environment where most work is knowledge work, where things change rapidly, keeping your staff informed is step one to be able to compete.

Real transparency takes a lot more effort, and it also has a much higher payback, that becomes evident as the company grows and matures and truly adopts transparency in its working practices.

Real transparency means deliberately and forcefully hunting down secrets and opening them. It means constantly asking yourself the question “am I doing this in secret? If so, why? How soon can I open it? Why not right now?” Whenever a new “thing” comes up, by default it will be discussed by only a few people and will be secret - that is a natural tendency for humans. A real commitment to transparency requires fighting that tendency all the time.

This needs to be done not just for things that don’t matter, but for everything - including, especially, salaries. Once you let secrets accumulate in one part of the business, they have an inexorable tendency to grow, accrue more parts, take over a larger part of the company’s mind-share. If salaries are secret, then how about the pay scale? If the pay scale is secret, then surely some of the factors that drive the pay scale might need to be confidential too, otherwise everyone can guess the pay scale. And so on…

Conversely, once you commit to the path of real transparency, you soon find that you can’t draw a line somewhere and just stop there. It feels almost insulting to do so - insulting to the intelligence of the people you work with, to imply to them that you can be transparent about all these things they need to understand to guess the things you’re not transparent about, but you’re not going to go any further.

The payback for going down this path, though, is enormous.

Trust vs control

Trust and transparency are intimately linked.

Most companies’ cultures are based on control rather than trust, because most people are scared of losing the illusion control. They want to feel in charge, like they have the power to command things to behave in a certain way. That power, that control, is an illusion, but by default, people cling to it like a loincloth covering their shame: the reality which is that they have no real power, just temporary and arbitrary authority.

Transparency removes that loincloth, in the business context. We’re all naked (in a business context, of course) and that’s ok, because we have nothing to be ashamed of. Importantly, it removes the illusion of control not just from employees, but also from the company’s management.

Full transparency means that everyone has the information required to question management’s decisions. It means all decisions are up for scrutiny. It means no one can just order another about without justification.

One of the most basic tricks for establishing a power imbalance between two people is for one of them to claim to know something that he can’t disclose to the other one. Transparency rips those kind of tricks away, and greatly evens out the power imbalance.

People can still have influence, of course, but that influence is earned through visible actions, not through access to secret information.

It is difficult to overstate the effect this has on company culture. A real commitment to complete transparency gets rid of a huge amount of bullshit in the company culture.

Mature discussions

People working for a company are not children, they are adults. And yet, with the typical levels of secrecy present in most companies, they are treated as children. “No, we can’t tell you about this thing, it’s not company policy to talk about this stuff.” “The contract says we’re not allowed to talk about salaries with each other”.

These kinds of behaviours treat people as children, instead of the self-aware, noble, mature individuals that they are. Keeping secrets is a way to push people down. Being transparent is a way to elevate them.

There is a lot to be said for the idea that people tend to behave in the way that they are expected to behave. If you treat them as children, they will behave as children. Most companies bemoan the fact that their organisational culture behaves as some kind of mass of children that do not take responsibility for what’s happening to the business as a whole, and yet they cut off those people from the information they need to do so and do not treat them as adults.

Full transparency is part of a number of company behaviours that change that. It’s a factor that communicates to people: we trust you to be responsible adults.

And, strangely enough, people react to that by behaving like adults.

What if this still sounds weird and alien

For some people, this probably still sounds like a weird and bizarre take on how to run a company. Others are excited by this and either recognise trends they’ve seen themselves or things that are happening in their own working environment.

If you’re in the first category, I encourage you to consider whether full transparency is scary simply because it’s unfamiliar. If that’s not the case, perhaps the reason for your dislike is even more simple: full transparency means giving up control in exchange for trust. It takes a lot more self-confidence in your ability to manage people than a secrets-based, command and control culture. That is genuinely scary, but I strongly encourage you to take the leap and see how you can function without command and control. You’ll be a better and more effective person for it.

If you’re in the second category, you may still be scared of going all the way. There are precious few examples of other companies doing this, so it certainly looks like a risky path. If you’re in charge, a founder of the company, I’ll merely remind you that no one ever builds something exceptional by doing it just like everyone else. Embrace the risk, plunge headlong into it, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results. If you’re an employee, you can be more transparent and trust-based in any environment - even a secretive, control-based company. You may not be able to go all the way, but every little bit helps you and the people around you. Of course, I am happy to have a chat about this with anyone who wants to approach me. My contact details are easy to find.

Are there any downsides, though?

Of course there are, and for a good idea of potential downsides, check the Hacker News thread in question. However, my point is there are overwhelming upsides to committing to full transparency that outweigh the downsides by such a large factor that it becomes a no-brainer.

In summary
  • Full transparency is different from paying lip service to transparency
  • Full transparency requires a constant commitment to hunt down secrets and make the non-secret
  • Full transparency is hard work but the payoff in terms of trust and maturity is enormous
  • Full transparency does mean giving up some control, which is why most people are so scared of it
  • The net transfer of power is from the management to everyone else, so the only people who should be genuinely scared are petty managers whose power depends on holding secrets
  • There are potential downsides to full transparency, but the upsides described above outweigh those downsides massively
Marketing role at GrantTree!

We’re looking for a friendly, energetic person to take over the marketing function at GrantTree. We have products that are first on the market, and we have an fairly unique culture that is worth talking about, but we’re struggling to give all these things the proper marketing attention that they deserve.

Founded in 2010 by Daniel Tenner and Paulina Sygulska, GrantTree helps tech companies to get government funding, mostly in the form of tax credits, and also has released an innovative new funding product called the Power-Up Fund.

We’re looking for someone with some experience of marketing already, and with a clear interest in the startup scene and in helping startups (both GrantTree and our customers) thrive. You’ll be joining our team of 15 women and men, most of them based in London, to take over the marketing function and help us double down on the efforts we’ve been making to get our brand out there.

GrantTree is a different place to work. We believe in openness and transparency. All our financial data is open to all employees, and we fight secrets wherever we find them. We believe in trust and responsibility rather than command and control. We believe in treating people like adults rather than infantilising them. To succeed in this environment, you must be genuinely self-motivated and able to work independently, while at the same time be team-minded and helpful and generous with your time. More of that on our website - have a read before you apply!

Here are the kinds of things we’d expect you to get involved in (but this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Keep track of competitors, do some competitor analysis
  • Design and implement our PR and marketing strategy
  • Figure out ways to measure (and then ensure) the ROI of your role
  • Book team members, some of whom are already successful public speakers, into (many) more speaking opportunities
  • Seek out opportunities and further GrantTree’s press coverage for its unique products (e.g. Power-Up Fund) and culture
  • Find events to host in GrantTree and organise/record/release videos
  • Help create promotional materials
  • Get the Blog/Social Media to be updated more frequently (i.e. come up with a more tangible plan/strategy for how we do this and get it implemented)
  • Be in charge of the weekly newsletter
  • Go to networking events
  • Come up with clever new ways to market GrantTree

However, the role is fairly open-ended. We want much, much more energy to be put into marketing activity, to make much, much better use of the advantages that we have, like our culture and our product and market differentiations, and to get a much better idea of the return on investment of those activities. Our main market is tech startups. We believe we can dominate this space if we get our marketing right, and your job will be to help that vision come true.

Skills-wise, we are looking for people who already have developed theirs in a marketing role, hopefully in the startup world or marketing to startups. One of your responsibilities will be to get us some press coverage, so this shouldn’t be something new and scary to you. A lot of startup marketing also happens in person - you’ll be better suited to this role if you love going to networking events and meeting people and talking to them about their cool startups.

The salary for this role is £28k per annum, plus a share of the bonus pool once out of the 6-month probation period.

To apply, simply email jobs@granttree.co.uk with a description of why you think you’d be a good fit for the role (rough target 300 words, but can be longer), and also include a link to a brief video of yourself telling us what you think we should do differently, marketing-wise (uploaded to youtube or a similar site - please make sure the link is accessible!).

Please don’t forget the video!

Note: No recruitment agencies or other third parties, please!

Since we’ve just deployed a new design, which you can see now, I thought this was a good time to post a screenshot of the old design and say good bye to it.

Good bye, old design, you served us well!

Friends of GrantTree

We’re putting together a Friends of GrantTree mailing list. We have mostly contacted people directly, but of course anyone is welcome to sign up.

There will at most about 1 mailing a month, short and to the point, offering up some news about grants, tax credits, and other forms of government funding. Since this is managed by MailChimp, you can easily unsubscribe any time if you change your mind. No fuss, no stress.

You can find the form here, or just sign up below!

This article, well worth a read, mentions how startups like Buffer and SumAll avoid salary negotiations entirely by having a culture of open salaries:

"The negotiating process is very alien to us at Buffer—because there is no negotiating," CEO Joel Gascoigne previously told Quartz. "We have a really high focus on cultural fit to the point that if they didn’t know about the formula before they applied, they probably wouldn’t be a good fit."

There is something slightly misleading in this. In a transparent culture, it’s true that there are no traditional salary negotiations, by which I mean the closed-doors, one-on-one, “I deserve to earn more and I’ve got better offers, so give me a raise” types of conversations, because it is simply impossible to act on them - secret pay packets are just not possible. If someone gets a pay raise, there needs to be a viable justification for that.

However, our experience is that there are, and in fact must be salary negotiations, but they happen in a group, in the open.

Much like with hierarchy, however, it is misleading to say that the “new model” of building companies has no salary negotiations - they just adopt a radically different, much more open and transparent and fair format. If they never happen at all, though, you’ll have a lot of problems with staff retention.

How to Innovate - and the kick-off of our startup pool tournament

What better way to kick off the carnival season on the startup scene than by rocking up to a great meet-up followed by a game of pool?

We have partnered with folks at British Computing Society to bring you How to Innovate - a series of three events, focusing on different aspects of innovation in the startup world. The first one is coming up very soon, on Wednesday 12.02 at our office in 16 Hewett St (2 min from Shoreditch High Street overground, 5 min from Liverpool St tube).

We will have Laurie Young, Head of Ops at the hot ruby shop New Bamboo (@wildfalcon) and our own Pow as speakers, followed by an open debate, drinks and… pool (register for spanking new, first in history Startup Pool Championships on events.granttree.co.uk).

  • Dr Laurie Young, Head of Operations, New Bamboo

Laurie’s talk will take you through a whistlestop history of how people in organisations have approached getting things done. From Henry Ford’s factories, through to Fayol’s and Gantt’s methodologies, the ideas behind effective leadership & management have changed significantly over time. Today’s innovators like to refer to themselves as “agile” but are rarely clear on what they mean by that. As an experienced leader of technical teams, Laurie will shed some light on different aspects of agile methodology, also in the context of much talked about Lean Startup techniques.

  • Paulina Sygulska, Director, GrantTree Ltd

As one of the founders of GrantTree, now in its fourth year, Paulina has been at the forefront of the company’s cultural evolution. Starting from a traditional mindset of fostering hierarchical structure, clear reporting lines and obedience, GrantTree came a long way towards a much more democratic - or participative - culture. Today GrantTree’s team members help shape the company, share in its profits and are trusted with all financial information, including company accounts and salaries. Through this hands-on presentation you will learn how to implement a revenue sharing scheme, open allocation, peer reviews etc within your startup team, and what pitfalls to avoid.

Spaces are free but limited, register on bcs.org.uk or simply rock up on the day!

Paul Arnold of AppDirect on creating an organisational structure that people can work within:

When you’re growing beyond 10 or 20 people, there’s a truth you’re probably reluctant to accept: You need organizational structure. New faces keep showing up wondering where they fit in. And people need to be empowered to lead. At AppDirect, we had to reinvent our approach several times before it worked.

Paul goes on to provide a very helpful and thorough overview of what they did at his company to put in an org chart (and then review it many times).

It’s worth pointing out (as you will know if you read this blog) that this is not the only approach to organisation. For example, companies like Valve and Github have an organisational structure based on open allocation. But to think that this means they have “no organisational structure” is as mistaken as declaring that “agile” means “no project management”.

Open allocation means the org chart can change, shift, reassemble, without a formal “re-org” like the ones that AppDirect went through multiple times. If anything, this requires more thought about structure than the regular way. After all, hierarchy is essential and inevitable, and open allocation (or holacracy, or other systems) don’t change that.

Bob Sutton writing on LinkedIn (a source I rarely quote):

Organizations that are celebrated for their lack of hierarchy may downplay and reduce status differences, but they always have some people with greater formal and informal power than others — and associated pecking orders. And eliminating titles such as “manager” or “supervisor” doesn’t make the hierarchy disappear. For example, there has been a lot of talk lately about Zappos’ ongoing reorganization into something they call a “holacracy.” Some headlines suggest that the company is getting rid of bosses – that isn’t quite right. While more power is being pushed down the hierarchy, it persists under the new structure. More responsibility is being placed as people are moved into “circles” (which sound much like self-managing teams). Yet even though they have stopped using the word “manager” for many roles, there are still be people who perform what sound like middle management roles to me: They are responsible for staffing teams and dealing with employee performance issues. And, while Zappos is getting rid of a lot of titles, note that Tony Hsieh is still called the CEO.

Great point. I think one of the misunderstandings of “flat” structures is the idea that there is no hierarchy. As Bob points out, there is always hierarchy, whether formal or informal.

A friend of mine who worked at a company with no hierarchy (and open allocation) commented that the problem with “no hierarchy allowed at all”, is that a hierarchy still forms, around who’s loudest and most pushy about their ideas. The huge problem with that is that this hierarchy is static - because it’s not even official, and it’s based around intrinsic properties of its people, it can’t be changed.

The problem with hierarchy is not with the mere existence of hierarchy, but with that hierarchy remaining static. A good organisational structure recognises that there is always a hierarchy, formal or informal, but more importantly recognises that this hierarchy will have to change at some point, and that it should never become a barrier to company adaptation to new external circumstances.

At GrantTree, we have only two levels of formal hierarchy: directors and everyone else. However, there are plenty of informal hierarchies that form and break down depending on the work that’s being done, and as the company expands its product offerings, we are geared up towards letting the informal hierarchies change and reshape around new commercial realities.

Why do we have directors at all? Because by default purely democratic organisations tend to resist change. Directors are there to be agents of change, explicitly tasked with making positive change happen within the company before it’s a burning need - not because they’re there to give orders to their subordinates (a word we would never use within GrantTree).

Tom Tunguz talks about the importance of both creating process to create order out of chaos, and then also continually improving those processes once they’re in place:

Once in place, these processes can’t remain static. Processes must stay relevant and productive through persistent improvement. This means using software to instrument processes, charging team leaders with the responsibilities to create new ways of doing things and pushing the company towards rapid improvement.

This is a good point, but bear in mind that command and control (“here, team leader, you’re in charge of getting everyone to follow this new process”) is not the only way - and is in fact a way that’s proven to create enormous amounts of inertia as the company grows.

Once upon a time, the way companies evolved their processes was via a “thaw - change - refreeze” model where a need for change was defined and then led to a clearly delineated transition phase. In today’s world, though, things change faster, and companies have to adapt faster. Nowadays, to be successful in the long run, a company needs to learn to adapt and change continually, and never freeze.

You might think this is only a problem for large companies, but actually it’s just as much of a problem for smaller ones. Change-averse culture can set in even at relatively small sizes of 10 or so, if no one is taking care to keep things moving in the right direction. Large companies can afford to waste billions on change programmes (sort of), but small companies are often against the ropes. Our main advantage as smaller companies is often adaptability - but just being a small company doesn’t mean you’ve remained adaptable.

Mark Suster:

Many startups these days are started by young, technical or product founders who are in the idealistic phase of their lives and careers.

Thus I hear many talk about “radical transparency” when virtually every experienced operator in my inner circle talks knowingly about that naiveté. It’s not that I don’t love idealism – I was young once, too! – it’s just that the more experience you get in your career the more you come to realize certain truths.

Ouch.

With all due respect to Mr Suster, however, I must disagree, quite strenuously - and not because I’m young and idealistic. I’m young(ish… 33), but deeply pragmatic. I’m building my company in a “radically transparent” company for very practical reasons:

1) I don’t want to work in a traditional company based on the “command and control” model.

2) I am aware that businesses today operate under market conditions that change ever faster, so adaptability is a premium quality for any business.

3) I can see for myself the obvious benefits of radical transparency in terms of the sort of people it attracts and how it motivates them.

This is not just my experience. I had a long chat with Joel, as well as with others in the industry, and they are seeing the same things. People like Ricardo Semler (whose revenue was $212m in 2003) have been preaching and applying ideas like these since the 80’s. Companies like Valve ($4b) and Github are running with open allocation. Zappos (acquired by Amazon for $1b) recently adopted Holacracy.

Those are all models that require radical transparency. Are Tony Hsieh, Gabe Newell and Tom Preston-Werner all starry-eyed “young and idealistic” product founders?

I don’t think so. And you shouldn’t either.

Here’s the reality: both models work. One way to refer to them is to call them Theory X and Theory Y style companies, after the ground-breaking research by renowned psychologist Douglas MacGregor in the 50s. But the key finding that most people usually miss is the discovery that: whatever your starting assumptions (X or Y), when you set out to gather data to prove them, you will find data that supports them.

In other words, if you believe that Theory X (Command and Control) is the one that works, when you set out to find out whether Theory Y makes any sense, the answer will be “no”. But the reverse is true too.

This calls for a bit more maturity than declaring that the other side is “young and idealistic”.

Both models work, they have different strengths and weaknesses. Use the model that makes sense for your context (which includes your beliefs) and don’t waste time belittling the other side.

Steve Blank:

Short answer — almost all the Unicorns pivoted. The authors of the article didn’t understand what a pivot was.

(…)

What was lacking in the article was a clear definition of a pivot. A pivot is not just changing the product. A pivot can change any of nine different things in your business model. A pivot may mean you changed your customer segment, your channel, revenue model/pricing, resources, activities, costs, partners, customer acquisition — lots of other things than just the product.

The 9 different things, in this case, are the 9 boxes in the business model canvas.

However, I’d push this a bit further. Once upon a time, source code control with solid tools like Subversion meant branching was difficult and required agreement between multiple people, etc. Then Git and Mercurial came along, and now branching is free, something that happens constantly, smoothly, without overhead. Best development practice has evolved accordingly to encourage frequent branching and merging.

Once upon a time, making changes to the business model was poorly understood, something you did by gut feeling, which had a high risk overhead because there were no measurements to prove that a change was beneficial. With Lean Startup and the Business Model Canvas, or other, proper mapping of your assumptions (such as Hypothesis Driven Development, making changes is something that can happen smoothly, quickly, and on a daily basis (at least pre-market-fit). Until you get to product-market fit, your main advantage is your speed of adaptation.

Like continuous deployment, which involves deploying the codebase to production many times a day, each time a new change is made (and tested), continuous pivoting means making tweaks to (often small aspects of) the business model several times a day. Most of those “pivots” are in fact micro-pivots, but in aggregate they can add up to very significant changes. This makes obvious sense from a pre-fit perspective, but what about post-fit?

I would suggest there is no fundamental difference between a pre-fit business model tweak and a post-fit one. And as the environment that the company evolves, the company must adapt - through continually pivoting. It might be called something else, but that’s what it is.

These changes necessarily become slower as the company grows and develops more cultural inertia, and as the risk of uncontrolled changes grows, but when they stop, or become too slow to adapt to a changing market, the company stops growing and starts dying.

Which leads to another interesting insight: once your startup grows, if you want it to live on for a longer time, one of your primary concerns as a founder must be to build a human organisation that has the nimbleness necessary to keep pivoting, quickly, forever.

OKR stands for “Objective / Key Results”, and is a management method that’s somewhat related to MBO - aka Management By Objectives.

We haven’t played with this in GrantTree yet, but we’re about to start experimenting with it for some people. This could be interesting as a self-management tool in companies, like ours, that have a self-managing culture.

The linked article, by Swipely CEO Angus Davis, is a thorough introduction to the topic, with examples.

Jacob Morgan writes:

The first and most important truth any leader must understand is that the human beings who work inside every kind of organization possess unlimited potential. They have the ability to solve any problem and the adaptability to respond to unforeseen circumstances. It may be the most overworked truism in the business world, but employees are indeed the most valuable resource and asset that any company has.

(…)

Organizations and their leaders must strive to break three common boundaries in order to unleash all of the talent and contribution lying in wait. The first is role-based: communication and collaboration is restricted by seniority level. How could a lowly entry-level employee possibly engage with a senior manager or worse… an executive! The second type of boundary is around departments and function. Marketing folks stick with their peers in marketing, sales with sales, product development with product development and information and potential opportunities for innovation remain stuck within silos. The third most common type of boundary is geographic—employees in one office or location simply don’t “see” their peers in another.

Jacob provides three approaches that help to remove these three barriers. As GrantTree grows, the question of how to arrange its internal structure and culture is deeply fascinating to me. If you’re an early founder, pre-revenue, pre-employees, ignore this stuff for now. If you’re at the stage we’re at, though, you’ll probably find this very interesting and relevant.

For GrantTree, the way we’re solving the first problem is:

  • everyone is involved in running the company;
  • Directors are stewards rather than hierarchical superiors;
  • roles are not strictly limited so people can get involved in whatever they think is helpful for the business and of interest to them.

This coincides well with Jacob’s first tool: moving from management to leadership. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s one of the ways I described the shift to open allocation for directors, to the company.

The second problem is being solved by:

  • tweaking the pay structure until there is no clear separation between roles and people can naturally shift around the company;
  • full open allocation, eventually, if we can make it happen;
  • full transparency about pretty much everything;
  • deliberate, consistent attempts to blur boundaries.

This matches very well with Jacob’s third idea, “From controlling management to boundary-breaking work”.

Finally the third problem we’re attempting to solve with tools like HipChat. We only have one remote employee at the moment, so it’s not a huge problem, but I really feel like we’re only 5% of the way there. Luckily, I’m addressing that by talking to people (for example, I’ll have a chat with Joel Gascoigne of Buffer, a fully, globally distributed young company, tomorrow), and hope to make some progress on Jacob’s second idea, which involves focusing on open, collaborative technologies. Currently, for us, that means HipChat and Dropbox, mostly.

GrantTree: our values

Most companies go through an exercise of defining their “values” at some point in their existence, and for most companies this exercise (usually repeated every few years when a new coach comes in and suggests it) is fairly empty. They go through the motions because their business coach tells them that they should, but, as I’ve argued before, developing a good culture takes constant vigilance - and a good culture is a prerequisite to people who care, and those people are a prerequisite to doing a values exercise that’s not completely pointless.

The values below are the values that we try to live by. They drive our actions every day, including how we treat clients, how we treat each other, how we design processes (or lack thereof) within the company, and who we recruit or let go. They are also the values that drive our performance reviews, what to do or not do with our clients, our staff, even our competitors.

Here they are, each broken down into examples:

Be Humble

Be respectful of other people. No one wants to work in an environment that is disrespectful.

Be self-aware of your own strengths and limitations, and therefore respectful that others also have both strengths and limitations.

Be modest despite being awesome. We’re hopefully all awesome at something. We also all suck at many more things. No need for false modesty, but be aware that being really good at a handful of things does not make you the best person who’s ever walked the Earth.

Be self-critical. Don’t just assume that because you did well before you’ll always do well. Things change and the ability to recognise your own evolving pattern of mistakes is an essential trait to remain successful.

Work as a team

Don’t be one chopstick. This ancient Chinese saying (not to be confused with “don’t be a chopstick” - we have nothing against chopsticks - except Amar) simply illustrates that one chopstick is easier to break than a bundle of chopsticks. There are many things that we do that can be more effectively or successfully done together rather than alone. This is not just about “being nice to others”. This value is about recognising that a team can in many circumstances be stronger than any individual.

Get others involved. Whenever you do something, spare a thought for whether others can help you, whether they might wish to be involved, whether they might make the net output of your effort larger.

Use other people’s strengths. No one is good at everything (see “Be humble”!), but most people are good at something. Be aware of what people are good at, what they enjoy doing, and make use of that to be more effective.

Don’t work on stuff in secret. Although it is very tempting to keep things secret for fear that they’ll be criticised, don’t fall prey to this mistake. So long as you are not surrounded by jerks, people will generally offer constructive criticism and help, not tear down your incomplete works. Not using that feedback leaves you weaker and less effective.

Do great stuff, tell people! As we embrace various forms of remote working, it becomes hugely important for people to make the effort to communicate what they’re up to. The type of culture we’re building only works with a cohesive team, not a scattering of isolated individual. When in doubt, over-communicate.

 Adapt & Grow

Take the initiative. Don’t wait for someone else to fix things. If you see a problem, get it fixed, don’t just shrug your shoulders and get on with your day. Everyone is responsible for making this company a great place to work.

Constantly changing. Life is change. Things are always in flux. This trend is only increasing with time. No one knows what the next ten years will bring, but most likely they will involve even more dramatic changes than the previous ten. Embrace that, and grow with it, rather than holding back, resisting new ideas, or even worse, holding them back. Any process that is set in stone is a process that could potentially kill the company if it’s not changed in time, when the business circumstances change.

Lifelong learner. “Get busy growing, or get busy dying”, the saying goes. When you stop looking for ways to learn new things, to grow, to become a better version of yourself, you start to prepare to die. We’re a young company, but this youth is not about our physical age, it’s about our mindset: always willing to learn new things, seeing new learning as an opportunity rather than a hurdle.

Willing to create change. When taking initiative, don’t be afraid if your initiative can cause significant or even drastic change. You are surrounded by like-minded people who embrace these values and so will embrace the change you initiate if it proves to be the right kind of change.

Flexibility. We try to keep roles fairly fluid and varied in GrantTree. Though people have a fairly clear core responsibility, there is no limit on what they can get involved in. To embrace that, though, you need to be willing to be flexible. Most of the really interesting opportunities that come your way will not look like your core responsibilities. If your typical answer is “that sounds interesting, but it’s not my job”, you’ll miss out on a lot of great opportunities.

Responsible growth. Be responsible about how you tackle new opportunities. It’s not ok to let your core responsibilities fall by the wayside because you’re pursuing a shiny new project. Sometimes, this may require you to choose to invest more time to get more things done. The trade-off is that those new things that you’re working on should be growing you as a person, in terms of your skills, your experience, etc. And they’re interesting, hopefully!

Be Transparent

Be open and honest with ourselves, our customers, and others. Nobody likes to be deceived, and so the first step is to not lie or mislead. But that is not enough. Being transparent means being deliberately, actively open about things that others may think don’t need to be shared. Like our financials - the vast majority of companies do not keep open books that all their employees can review, but we do. The vast majority of companies do not involve employees in strategic discussions about where the company is going, but we do. Those and many other things seem easier to do in secret before revealing them to the wide world. Being transparent, being open and honest, requires making an active effort to share more than we’re used to or comfortable with initially.

Challenge the need for secrecy. Whenever something is being kept secret, your first thought should be to challenge this. Why should this thing be secret? What’s the harm in involving more people? Are we just afraid of getting negative feedback? Are we afraid of losing control? Those are genuine reasons for fear but they are not good reasons to keep things secret. So far, the only thing which everyone has generally agreed should be kept secret is private medical or personal problems. Everything else (including salaries, bonuses, performance reports, and the like) is open.

Take responsibility. Being transparent to others also requires being transparent with yourself. We each have far more influence on things that we think. Taking responsibility involves looking back at events honestly and assessing what we could have done to avoid a given issue, and recognising that. In particular, taking responsibility means not focusing on who’s to blame, but instead accepting that we often have a share of responsibility in things that look like somebody else’s problem.

Share both good and bad news. Bad things happen. That’s life, and it’s business. The difference between a mediocre business and a great business is not whether bad things happen at all, but how those bad things are handled. Giving the customer bad news is always disappointing and scary, but it’s also always much better to get it over and done with, be forthright, up-front with the bad news, and propose some concrete steps to move on from the problem.

Be ourselves. Pretending to be someone else is not being transparent. We are real people with all sorts of weird hobbies and likes and dislikes. Each of us is different and that’s ok. We should be ourselves both as a group (with the weird and wonderful GrantTree culture) and as individuals.

 Be Effective

Get shit done. When you decide to do something, do it. Don’t procrastinate forever and just let things hang in the background until they’re forgotten. When you set out to complete a task, the task should be scared of you, not the other way around! Some tasks are particularly difficult for a specific individual to do, but easy for another. When this happens to you, don’t be one chopstick! Find someone who finds that your task is a walk in the park and get them to assist you, even if it’s just to kick your butt into doing the task yourself.

Achieve results. Doing things just for the sake of doing them helps no one. We do things because they achieve results, both tangible and intangible. Always keep in mind the result that you want to achieve, when you do something. You may uncover unexpected shortcuts or new perspectives that make your task much easier or very different.

Move the needle. Getting shit done and achieving results is still not enough! Those results need to “move the needle” in a tangible way. Doing something and achieving a result that is completely unnoticeable by anyone is not worth your time when there are some many things you can do that will have a great impact. We’re a small company. There should not be anyone who doesn’t understand how and why their work makes a big difference.

Add value. Of course, the needle needs to move int he right direction. When deciding what to do, focus on things that clearly will make things better for someone: our customers, ourselves, the tech community, etc.

Predisposed to action. Shall we do another round of analysis and discussion before we get this done? Sometimes the answer is yes. Most of the time it ain’t.

Resourceful. Everyone can say “I can’t do this because …” Effective people identify and locate the resources they need irrespective of obstacles and other difficulties. You have a whole team that can help you, and there are people outside of GrantTee who can help too, and of course all the knowledge stored on the Internet is at your fingertips is there for you too. There are some things that are, perhaps, truly impossible, like traveling faster than light, existing in two places at once, or changing the taste of the colour purple. It is very unlikely that the thing you’re trying to do is one of those.

Look for leverage. Being effective is not about bashing your head on the wall until one of them breaks. For almost every task you undertake, there are smart ways to magnify the impact of the task while reducing the effort. Instead of doing things the way everyone else does them, look for a smarter way that leverages the unique set of resources at your disposal. You’re not average, so don’t do things the average way.

Be Generous

With ourselves, with our customers, and with the community. The world in general, and the startup community in particular, tend to reward people who are generous with their time, their knowledge, their assistance. Obviously we are a business and eventually we need to make money to survive, but that does not mean we should be stingy with our time. GrantTree would not exist without the generous assistance of countless other people. Pay it forward.

Over-deliver when we can. Every once in a while there is an opportunity to wow the client with exceptional service that they didn’t expect it. Grab those opportunities. They can be our best marketing tool.

Give back to the industry/community. The startup community in particular functions in a peculiar way where you tend to get by giving. As our focus as a company is tech startups, it is particularly important that we help it flourish. The apparently hapless founder who you help today may be the founder of one of our best new clients tomorrow. And even if they’re not, helping people is good.

Provide free support to colleagues, clients and others. If someone on the team wants to learn something that you are an expert at, be generous with your time (within reason, of course). Be generous with your time rather than stingy. The more time you give, the more time you have (because others help you in return and maximise the value of your own time).

If in doubt, be too generous. Generosity can be abused. Some people will take advantage of you, of us. That’s ok. If someone is clearly abusing our generosity, we should of course take action to resolve that, but we should accept that a consequence of a generous system is that there will be some abuse sometimes. Trying to stop all abuse will not stop abuse, but it will stop the generosity.