Remote Culture: One Company’s Journey
Written by Barbara Tallent, CEO of Atsign
“You can’t create a company culture when everyone is virtual.” Really?
I’m paraphrasing but this is from a book I recently read by Martin Lindstrom titled “The Ministry of Common Sense”. I quite enjoyed the book, but he said something like this multiple times throughout the book and it really set me off. I thought, what on earth is he talking about? Maybe he hasn’t read anything from Matt Mullenweg on the matter.
When we first started Atsign in 2019, we decided we would be virtual. That way we could recruit the best people we have worked with in the past, no matter where they are living now. I was reminded of this when Chris Swan joined the team today. The fact that we could attract someone of his caliber, even though he lives in London, is completely affirming of that initial strategy. I remember people saying that we were wrong, that virtual companies don’t work, and that we would need to get an office somewhere. How funny that in the spring of 2020 all of that changed.
“I remember people saying that we were wrong, that virtual companies don’t work, and that we would need to get an office somewhere.”
But back to the topic of creating a culture when you are virtual. We had an introductory Zoom call with Chris today to welcome him to the team. I didn’t talk much, as Chris and I had spoken before and I wanted him to get to know the rest of the team. But I was really struck by how the team talked about the company culture. It honestly almost brought tears to my eyes as Martin Lindstrom’s thoughts were running through my head.
I am now reading Marc Randolph’s book about the founding of Netflix, “That Will Never Work”. Netflix is world renowned for their corporate culture and was founded in the late 90s before virtual companies were even possible. I remember seeing their culture deck and being so impressed that they were so deliberate about their culture. Marc talks about how their culture evolved from the very beginning — he didn’t just show up with that deck in hand!
But with us, we actually knew upfront what type of culture we wanted to create. Much of it comes from knowing what we didn’t want. Kevin, Colin, and I are older co-founders, so I guess you can say that we have seen it all when it comes to culture. Chris talked today about how he blogs to cement things in his mind and as a checklist for the future Chris. I totally get that! That is what inspired me to write this post: I wanted to capture some of the discussion today, and to document some of the culture that we started with and some that has evolved at Atsign.
I do think it is important to understand a culture before joining a company. Everyone is different and where one person thrives another could go to die. Here are some elements of our culture that came up today at Chris’ welcome Zoom.
The atPlatform that we are building turns every existing model on its head. It is actually hard to wrap your mind around the fact that there is no client/server — everything is both. As such, most patterns that we know do not fit what we are doing, and quite honestly the cofounders don’t fit in most typical patterns, so this came quite naturally. Whenever we get stuck on a problem, we just do the opposite of the norm, and the answer is always there. This is true on the technology side, but also in every other aspect of the business.
Denise told the story today about starting the intern program last year. She talked about having a budget for 4 interns. But Denise, being the overachiever that she is, discovered 18 interns that she wanted to bring in. If you think of that linearly — budget then interns — that means you pick 4 interns. But if you think of that backward — interns then budget — you go out to your investors and get them to sponsor interns. So we had an amazing group of 18 virtual interns last summer, thank you to our fabulous investors!
If it is not fun, don’t do it
This is probably the oddest aspect of our company’s culture. Fun is a core competency of the company. We started this from the very beginning. We knew we were creating huge innovations in privacy and that privacy is both really important and really boring. And who wants to scare customers into using your product? Definitely not fun. What we want to create is new experiences for people where privacy is just a great side benefit, but they love the products for making their lives so much better and easier.
This soon spilled into everything we do, from our daily stand up meetings to our bi-weekly demo days showing off new apps, to our website. If one of us is working on something and not having fun, it is time to reach out to someone else, bring someone in to give you a new perspective and make it fun to work on together. If we are all going to work this hard, we all need laughter to lighten things up.
I loved how Tinashe talked today about when she joined the company and everyone talked about “fun” she thought we must all be on something. (Some of us are in California after all!) Really, work being fun? But she soon joined in the mayhem and admitted that sometimes she joins the late night meetings (midnight her time) just for the fun of it.
We take our fun very seriously, even when we are all spread across 3 continents and 6 different time zones. (The @timezone unites us all!)
Martin says it in his book, and I have read the studies as well, that flat organizations are just more productive. It makes sense: When you have groups of middle managers, messages have to go through multiple filters and interpretation, causing politics to become the status quo.
But for me there is a challenge to a flat organization as we grow. I can’t spend time with everyone giving them the tools they need to be successful, so the individual has to take on the burden of setting their own direction, making sure what they are doing every day aligns with the company goals, and figuring out where to get help when they get stuck. You just have to be a real self-starter in a flat organization.
Esther shared today how as a newly minted team member after the intern program, she put together a complete presentation on just how bad the current process was to get an atSign. She said, “You guys talk about having fun. Well, this is just not fun.” Her presentation was embraced with support all the way around. She was right, and she led the charge to fix things.
A company where a brand new employee and recent college grad can stand up and say that we are doing things wrong is unusual for sure, but should it be? People who are new to an organization have that fresh outsider perspective that is so important to hear.
The founders are old, but we also have the very unique characteristic of being very young in orientation. Seeing it all doesn’t mean we know it all. In fact, learning is a prime motivator for all three of us. We learn so much from the people around us and every person who has joined since has similar goals. When you are doing something as different as we are doing, we are all learning along the way. Finding joy in learning is very important to us.
It was cool how Hakeem talked today about his orientation as an intern. He talked about how during the intern program we discussed that they may be there to learn from us, but we were there to learn from them. We learned so much from that group of interns: They were simply amazing!
At Atsign everyone picks their own title (except for me — Colin and Kevin picked that one for me). Chris ended our introduction today by saying why he chose the title of “engineer.” (Mind you this is the person who has been CTO of multiple companies large and small.) The title appealed to him because an engineer is always learning. He wanted his title to reflect that he was someone in the learning mode, as opposed to someone in the pontificating mode.
Welcome Chris Swan, you are going to fit right in!
Barbara Tallent is the CEO of Atsign, a tech startup committed to transforming how the modern Internet treats people’s data.
To find more stories from Atsign, follow us on Twitter.