Why do we continue to have bad meetings? Seriously, 99% of the human population seem to hate them, and there are surveys showing again and again that there are x many meetings everyday that cost gabillions of dollars worth of wasted time and productivity.
Is it some horrible concoction of misplaced optimism that this time it’ll be better, resigned acceptance that this is a required dog and pony show — the business world’s tradition of dance, monkey, dance — and a massive buildup of bad meeting history that’s created such intense inertia that only superheroes can help us pull away into the light?
Imagine that a group of you had to build a doghouse like Snoopy’s, and you got a toolbox, some wood, and pencils and paper. Your team is revved up about this cool doghouse, you can envision it, you have all these super useful tools, but all your team does with the pencils and paper is doodle pictures of cute dogs instead of making a blueprint or marking down measurements. Then when you run out of paper, you ask for more paper — only to doodle more pictures of dogs.
That’s how we’re treating meetings. Meetings are a helpful tool to decide and plan things. But misused, they’re just a bunch of meaningless doodles that don’t lead to anything being built and Snoopy with no place to live.
Recently Harvard Business School professor Nancy Koehn talked to NPR’s Marketplace about ineffective meetings. The estimates she cited include:
11 million meetings every day in the U.S.
That means 4 billion a year.
Over 50% of people surveyed said that half the meetings they attend are unproductive.
Koehn’s explanation for why we keep having fruitless meetings? Habit.
That’s the only way it makes sense that we keep repeating our unhealthy behavior: bad habits are irrational. They’re actions you can’t justify merely by saying, “well this is how I’ve been doing it” — just like how you can’t make any progress toward losing weight as a goal but keep eating and moving the same as you ever were.
But people overcome bad habits all the time by consistently trying to improve rather than repeat them. There are some common solutions to fixing meetings, such as sticking to stated starting and ending times, agendas, and plans; going into meetings with specific goals; and limiting participation to only those people who have to be in the room.
We thought we’d feature some lesser known tips on making the meetings you do have more effective (don’t forget that the poor things do have a purpose when they’re run well), which means fewer meetings and less wasted time.
Set a Meetings Cadence
When scheduled indiscriminately, meetings can be supremely disruptive and damaging to your productivity and flow.
Part of what makes meetings so overused is that they seem like an unlimited resource, so when you start setting and respecting some limitations on their frequency by designating no meeting days, people’s approach and behavior in meetings can click into focus.
Take Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey. His philosophy is that stress comes from the unexpected so that setting a cadence around your schedule keeps tensions at bay. So Dorsey sets aside Mondays for meetings. So too does Jon Steinberg, president and COO of Buzzfeed, who was inspired by Dorsey to set a meeting cadence. He considers Mondays his “internal meeting day” in addition to deliberately scheduling Tuesdays and Thursdays as “no meeting” days.
The gourmet snack subscription service Love With Food also sets a meeting rhythm. By virtue of its alternating co-location and remote working schedule, the startup limits its meetings to when people are physically in the office every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Because there’s a set cadence, founder Aihui Ong notes that it forces people to be deliberate about scheduling and to maximize the effectiveness of the face-to-face time they have with each other.
Write Stuff Down and Get Rid of Presentations
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos starts his senior executives meetings off with half an hour of total silence. Everyone reads a six-page memo that has been prepared in advance. This is effective because it gets clear thoughts and argument down in writing, all structured to reach towards answering the question of “now what?” in the discussion that follows.
LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner also takes a page from Bezos’s meeting playbook by starting each meeting with five to ten minutes to read over materials sent out in advance, figuring quite rightly that “just because the material has been sent doesn’t mean it will be read.” The specific reason behind this quiet reading time is that LinkedIn has eliminated presentations in meetings — no more Powerpoints, no more droning on, no more snoozing while people try to get you up to speed.
Weiner discovered that getting rid of presentations focuses the meeting’s contents and shortens its duration, getting to “now what?” much more quickly.
With the presentation eliminated, the meeting can now be exclusively focused on generating a valuable discourse: Providing shared context, diving deeper on particularly cogent data and insights, and perhaps most importantly, having a meaningful debate.
Start With Wins
Weiner also starts status meetings with something surprising. Instead of diving straight into business, he asks everyone to go around and share their wins of the week, “one personal victory and one professional achievement.” While this might sound like it wastes more time, it actually ends up focusing people by putting them into a positive frame of mind to tackle issues and talk metrics without turning into an unproductive, repetitious “round robin of complaints.”
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When we talked with ShopLocket CEO and co-founder Katherine Hague, she pointed out the importance of noting what kind of work is getting done every day. There’s maintenance or even busy work like doing email all day that can trick you into feeling like you’ve been quite productive. And then there’s the work that is “forward-moving for the company”, which means you’re getting stuff done that really matters.
Palantir’s Michael Lopp (Rands) notes then how meetings aren’t for discussing things that can be documented like status updates, spreadsheets, or bug reports but for discussing “what’s important, what you care about this week, this month and this year. What’s working and what isn’t and what’s going to be fixed.”
Changing our bad meeting habits means thinking about what about them is moving you forward, what do they address that you actually care about? Let’s stop accepting the bizarre notion that it’s proper, even responsible, to continue doing something that doesn’t actually move your organization or your people forward.
How ShopLocket Maximizes its Progress By Celebrating Wins
When ShopLocket cofounder and CEO Katherine Hague once wanted to sell some ninja T-shirts, she found herself stuck, feeling that the cost and process of building a whole storefront to do so didn’t make any sense. Seeing a gap in e-commerce options between all the bells and whistles of building a virtual store and throwing a posting up on Craigslist, Katherine and cofounder Andrew Louis started ShopLocket to provide a microshop tool to embed products into whatever platform you’re already using, from Facebook pages, blogging sites, and beyond.
Creating A Happy Workplace
Having gone through a Toronto accelerator, raised a seed round of $1 million in funding, and expanded to a team of seven since 2011, ShopLocket is now focused on understanding their sales funnel and growing their product team. Throughout this progression, Katherine’s been careful to ensure that ShopLocket’s culture remains strong and employees happy by cultivating a workplace where people actually like to be.
In starting ShopLocket, Katherine explains, “We wanted to create a place where we wanted to work. A lot of that creating a happy place comes from the Zappos mentality but we’d heard a lot of stories of people who woke up one day to realize that they’ve created a company where they don’t even want to go.”
So ShopLocket works hard and ping-pongs hard, and they purposefully do so in a coworking space to foster collaboration, creativity, and collective energy. Telling me she was sitting at the space’s communal lunch table, Katherine elaborates on the decision, “We could have moved into our own office pretty early on, but it’s been important to us to be surrounded by other startups and other really smart people. It’s really collaborative and a fun, casual space.”
In addition, ShopLocket has flexible work hours in order to respect people’s time, autonomy, and judgment on when you think you work best, and with the office located in downtown Toronto, there’s not only a bustling community but easier, walkable commutes to work. “All of that’s been really important,” comments Katherine. “Everyone matters a hell of a lot to what gets done and making sure that everyone is happy and productive is really important to us.”
Pausing to Celebrate Wins and Good Times
With the hustle and bustle of starting a company, it can be easy to forget to take time to recognize successes and connect with each other. That was quickly remedied along ShopLocket’s continual quest to keep everyone happy and productive.
Katherine explains, “Early on we realized we weren’t really celebrating our successes. It was always just onto the next thing and ‘what do we have to get done?’. So we started being a lot more conscious about doing team lunches, celebrating people’s birthdays, doing Friday beers, and really being more conscious of the good things that are happening all along the way.”
To recognize and show off all those good things, ShopLocket even created a company timeline on their website, highlighting not just media mentions and milestones such as legal incorporation but also just “interesting things that happened along the way that are fun to us” — from people’s birthdays to new hires to hoodiedom.
Mindsets to Move Forward
ShopLocket’s culture of celebrating successes also means Friday demos to show off people’s work as well as using iDoneThis to share daily progress and open up sight lines for people with different roles to see what each other is doing. “It’s a lot about internal sharing and a lot less to do with oversight. iDoneThis keeps communication open and helps us each individually focus on our own productivity.”
What surprised Katherine about iDoneThis was actually a mental switch that the tool provided to improve personal productivity. Beforehand, according to Katherine, “We probably weren’t progressing as fast as individuals. I think iDoneThis has changed all of our mindsets to be a lot more action-oriented because at the end of every day you’re going to put together some sort of list of what you completed. The value is more the process of having to think about what we did that day, to be a little bit more conscious of how we spend our time.
“It’s about framing your mind: ‘this is something I want to work on and I want to complete it’, rather than the sort of day that’s ‘oh I did email all day but I didn’t do anything that was forward-moving for the company.’ It quickly changed our mindset to actually focus on completing things throughout the day, and the things that go into iDoneThis are forward-moving things, things that are not just clearing out our inboxes.”
We’re so delighted that we’re helping awesome companies like ShopLocket move forward on a path to many more timeline memories to come!
Why Foursquare, BuzzFeed, and Shopify Use Google Snippets
There’s one internal communication tool, little known outside of tech circles, that’s been the management engine behind many of tech’s biggest successes. Known as Google Snippets (having started as an internal tool at Google), this single tool has grown to become one that many of the best technology companies use to keep their teams aligned and working in sync while giving them the freedom to work creatively and autonomously.
The reason the system at Google caught on is that it’s not only powerful but incredibly simple to use.
Snippets sends everyone a weekly email on Monday asking you what you did last week and what you planned to get done the next week. When you reply to the email, your response goes onto an internally accessible webpage, and the next day, you’ll get an email that shows you what everyone else in the company is working on.
What began as a modest tool for keeping everyone in the loop became a powerful tool for company-wide transparency, as Google grew from hundreds to tens of thousands of people. With snippets, every employee had access to important knowledge regarding what was happening in the company — a stark contrast from the old days when managers hoarded information and kept it from their reports.
As Googlers eventually spread their wings and left the company for other tech pastures, they brought snippets with them, which is how similar systems became critical management tools at companies like Foursquare.
Here’s why three of the fastest-rising tech companies today use snippets and how it fuels their success:
1. Foursquare: all-around reporting
Most corporate reporting systems force underlings to report up to management and executives. That made sense in the command-and-control management framework, but it’s totally out of date in the flat and decentralized way nimble tech startups are organized.
Because snippets asks everyone to account for what they’re working on, it’s a system that’s unique in that it flips the way company reporting is typically organized. Instead of employees only reporting to managers, managers report to employees as well. When Dennis Crowley, co-founder and CEO of Foursquare sends out his snippets, he’s reporting to the team as any other member of the team would:
When I send out mine, the first heading is, “Things I’m Psyched About,” and the next is, “Things That I’m Not So Psyched About” or “Things I’m Stressed About.” The next thing is usually a quote of the week — something I heard from one of our investors or maybe overheard from an employee — and then I have my snippets below that.
In response to his snippets, employees will send him feedback on how he can improve, which inverts the typical reporting-into-feedback power dynamic. “I get a lot of feedback from employees,” Crowley says. “It only takes them a minute or two to read, and it’s like a bird’s-eye view of what I think is going well at the company and areas where I think we could improve.”
2. BuzzFeed: engineering serendipity
When a tech startup is young, it has that incredibly tight-knit feeling that everyone knows what everyone is working on in the company. When the company begins to grow rapidly, it’s easy to lose that magic and start to have a company in which one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing.
BuzzFeed is a company whose headcount has tripled to 300 employees in a year, so it knows the meaning of growing pains firsthand. For Jon Steinberg, founder and CEO of BuzzFeed, snippets is his “kismet engine" that helps him connect the dots on what’s happening in the company given that individual and team actions often seem disparate without contextualization in the company as a whole.
In modern, data-rich companies, information on what’s happening in a company is fragmented across people and systems, which makes it incredibly difficult to gather information on what’s getting done in the company. So people set up meetings, which become a huge time and productivity killer.
Because snippets is a single, high-signal place with what everyone in the company got done, it’s a “statistically small space” for information that makes it far easier to make connections across different groups and disciplines. That single, high-level view of the whole company brings individual data points into focus and paints a portrait of the company as a whole, which drives unlikely connections and insights.
3. Shopify: peer recognition
As a company grows in headcount and complexity, it becomes harder and harder to ensure that individuals receive praise and are appreciated for their contributions and effort. What you don’t want your company to become is a place where only the loudest employees receive recognition for their work.
Snippets is a system where what you share is internally public, which means that what’s broadcasted to the company isn’t what’s cherrypicked by managers and executives. Everyone is given the opportunity to show their unfiltered accomplishments which becomes the starting point for participatory likes and words of praise from colleagues. This drives a grassroots culture of appreciation and recognition, not one that needs to be “mandated” by management.
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It comes down to knowing what’s going on at work — a surprisingly thorny challenge that can grow into an impenetrable thicket if left unaddressed. Google’s snippets system demonstrated that the answer is finding an easy way to ask not just your work neighbor but your colleague on the next floor or another country, “hey, so what are you working on?” — in a way that doesn’t interrupt, distract, or take up valuable time like meetings can. The benefits to possessing this common knowledge about everyone’s work are tremendous — fueling a transparent, connected, and feedback-rich culture.
How Annie's Weaves Its Publishing Web for Crafters
From its start as a small, mail-order needlecraft company, Annie’s has grown into a craft media empire. Based in Berne, Indiana, the family-owned business produces magazines, catalogs, kits, books, newsletters, and even its own TV show, PBS’s Knit and Crochet Now!
Annie’s web development team handles everything web-related for the company’s wide range of products, which means constant content updates, new sites, and creative projects such as online classes with experts who teach everything from Bavarian crochet and quilting to jewelry-making and knitting magic socks.
Since the web department’s formation in 1998, it’s had to adapt right along with the web revolutions of publishing and retail. Project manager Michelle Lawrence describes the team’s busy role in the transformation that’s had to take place at Annie’s to keep up with the times and the business’s exponential growth: “In addition to performing our technical support duties, we also help guide others when dealing with anything that goes on the internet. It’s not necessarily a part of everyone’s background and explaining what we need and what we do in order for things to run smoothly is not always factored into the time we allot for various tasks!”
With so many parts involved in producing the various media channels, Annie’s web dev team has to make sure those parts keep moving. Michelle notes, “The most challenging thing about all those moving parts is communication, to make sure everyone relevant to a conversation is in the loop.”
To do so, the team has structured itself to keep communication flowing. Michelle and Heather Baker as project managers handle various stages of tasks, and there’s also a remote employee advocate to ensure that their concerns and issues are heard. Michelle explains, “This avoids bottlenecking things on any one person, but also makes sure messages are getting through to the right people, with experts on specific aspects of how the company works.”
As the growing team keeps up with “literally hundreds of concurrent projects”, it’s no surprise then that Annie’s web team is one of our most regularly active teams. Michelle points out, “iDoneThis’s snapshot view of what everyone is working on helps prevent forming work silos and saves the time of asking for updates on various projects and tasks.”
Another major time-saver? Shorter meetings. “A big plus is that iDoneThis saves meeting time for us. We don’t have to fill everyone else in on what we’ve been working on lately, and we can skip ahead to problems or large projects.”
Meanwhile the team has an outlet to not only track and celebrate progress but to express frustration and the occasional aside, with dones such as:
“Still have issues where the application seems to lock up my browser… yay?”
"Ate at what my son calls ‘Catfish Heaven’. Mmmmm.”
“oh, i’m so done.”
“Installer will be here soon… hopefully before all patience is gone.”
“Help Brian to figure out leadgen keycode issue. Marketing’s fault!”
Positioned at the crossroads of multiple departments and products, Annie’s web team now gets a quick overall view of progress across parts, gaining context and improving coordination. “Everything we work on affects something another person works on,” says Michelle. “iDoneThis is a quick reference to see just how that plays out and facilitates a collaborative atmosphere.”
We’re happy to help independent companies like Annie’s cultivate creativity through the web and beyond!
Treat others the way you want to be treated. It’s a simple enough concept that long predates any management manual. Yet somehow the notion of treating people like, well, people when it comes to managing them gets lost in the landscape of meetings, memos, and motivational posters.
Is it that power actually gets to people’s heads? Adam Galinsky, a professor of management at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, tested whether there are heady effects. In one study, a group of participants were first primed to feel powerful by writing about a time they felt authority over others. They went on to make more mistakes when guessing the emotional expressions of faces showing happiness, sadness, fear, or anger, compared to the control group.
So the job of managing itself may reduce your ability to empathize and perceive what others are feeling and experiencing. When you lose touch with your team as people, you cause them to feel frustrated, demotivated, and unacknowledged — not only harming relationships but performance as well.
Too many of us have been trained to focus on work, as if it exists in a vacuum, that we forget that fixes aren’t limited to considering and discussing the work itself. Here’s how three companies avoid that trap by putting a priority on treating their employees like human beings.
“I treat everyone how I would like to be treated.” —Jim Belosic, founder of ShortStack.
Jim Belosic, the founder of the multimillion dollar startup ShortStack, which helps people create custom apps for Facebook pages, had never had any management training. Instead he’s guided by the Golden Rule as a leader after having had a dehumanizing experience at another company. “I worked my butt off and they didn’t appreciate it,” he told Fast Company. Only allowed half an hour for lunch, he once used his time to get a haircut only to have his manager demand to know why he was eating at his desk.
Now every Friday, he takes his whole staff out for Friday lunches, happy to foot the extra $3000 per employee a year to do so.
Whether they go out or order in, work talk is off the table so that people can get to know each other and open up the unavoidable cliques that emerge from how often you work with certain people. You can’t know what everyone’s really like “unless you have those opportunities to get to know each other,” he says.
Belosic also tries to sidestep those destructive effects of power by flattening ShortStack’s management structure. He sits at a receptionist’s desk in the middle of the office to stay connected, and title or not, he explains, “If someone needs something from me, I have 12 other bosses. If I need something from them, then I’m their boss.”
Ask: “‘What’s going on in your life?’ That will always remove more hurdles than asking… ‘What’s blocking you at work?’” —Jason Stirman, Head of People Operations at Medium
When Jason Stirman headed up a team at Twitter before he landed at Medium, he tried all the stereotypical management advice like not getting too friendly with his reports and asking them what’s blocking progress — and it never resonated. He decided to focus on people first instead of their work first, spending time with them one-on-one, taking them out to lunch and coffee, not to talk about tasks but about what was going on in their lives.
Stirman was surprised to find that setting aside the work at the outset was the secret to actually getting to the issue.
“Whenever problems popped up, I’d totally ignore them and pay attention to the people who had them. Suddenly all these issues were just dissolving. I swear it was like a Jedi mind trick.”
When Stirman had people who by all accounts were like oil and water and couldn’t work together, he just got them to talk about everything except work:
“[W]e got some casual conversation going, they discovered some similarities, and by the end of the hour they were talking about how to solve their issues. This was a conflict that literally kept me up at night, and as soon as there was space for them to connect as people, it was fixed. I thought, holy crap, this is a super power.”
Asking “What’s going on in your life?” rather than “What’s blocking you at work?” turned out to be the magic key to the management engine that had been stalling. You carry your whole life around in your head no matter how much you might pretend to have a work self and a self-self, and issues of family, health, money, and just plain living take up space no matter where you are.
“You’re managing people who have lives,” Stirman notes. When there’s a problem at work, a critical part of the solution can require setting aside the work and paying attention to those lives.
"A company already knows more than the managers." — Tobi Lutke, CEO Shopify
While Stirman finds the manager’s framing of “reports as resources” dehumanizing, Shopify goes right ahead and refers to its HR department as “human relations” rather than “human resources.”
With almost 300 employees, taking everyone out to lunch for personal connection isn’t quite viable (although the staff does get lunch catered every day). As companies like Shopify scale, managers inevitably lose that immediate knowledge of what’s going on every day, and so the folks at Shopify unleashed the wisdom of its crowd.
Every month, each employee gets an allotment of the company’s bonus pot of profit — but they can only distribute it to other people. With an internal system called Unicorn, when you accomplish something awesome or spend some time helping me figure out a bug, for example, I can thank you by going into the system and giving you one, two, or three unicorns. So at the end of the month, part of my bonus allotment goes to you and anyone else I’ve given unicorns.
The system puts power back into the hands of the people who have the most knowledge about both the work and the people who made it happen. Rather than inadequate top-down evaluations or the disconnection of automatic bonuses, Shopify came up with a way to both engage and gain valuable knowledge from its employees.
The result is that people gain the recognition they deserve. Take the case of one Shopify employee who wasn’t being effective at his projects. When managers checked his unicorns though, it became clear that the reason behind his supposed weak performance was that he was actually spending most of his time helping others — to the point where he got the second largest bonus that month.
Rather than shooting that kind of behavior down, Shopify’s CEO Tobi Lutke sees its value, “This was his own way to integrate into the company and it was tremendously useful.” Shopify’s management was able to see a more complete picture of not just who this employee is and how he was contributing, but the higher-level needs of the company and the role that he was filling in that context.
For Shopify, that rounded, three-dimensional knowledge is the essence of treating people like human beings. “In a way, a company already knows more than the managers, and there are ways to tease those out. I think this was something on the right side of history in terms of human relations.”
What’s one tactic you know to put people first that ultimately boosts performance? Share your wisdom in the comments!
Love With Food is a subscription service that delivers a specially curated box of organic and all-natural snacks every month. For every box that’s sent, the company donates a meal to feed a hungry child.
Founder Aihui Ong embarked on Love With Food after seeing a friend forced to shutter her stir-fry sauce business because she was unable to secure wider distribution. Aihui (pronounced “I-we”) not only saw the need for alternative channels of distribution and marketing connecting food entrepreneurs to consumers but also an opportunity to help the one in five children in America at risk of hunger.
From a company of one in late 2011, Love With Food has grown to twelve employees. While growing any startup is challenging, Aihui notes that LWF’s mission helps her hire: “In the last eighteen months, we’ve donated more than 100,000 meals, and that also draws the right talent to our company. People who want to join us really value that we’re giving back and doing something innovative to disrupt the food industry.”
Tools to Streamline Chaos and Meetings
To keep those growing ranks in sync, Love With Food uses Trello in conjunction with iDoneThis.
The company uses Trello to track tasks, to-do’s, and general goals on deck, but when you’re running a business, that’s never the whole story. “As a startup, there are unforeseen fires that we have to put out, and those cannot be planned,” says Aihui. “We have chaos everyday — so iDoneThis actually allows everyone to understand what everyone is working on everyday, what are the fires that you have to fight other than the regular things that are on Trello.”
According to Aihui, that everyday chaos has also crept into her inbox. She laughs, “I’ve gotten to a point where my inbox doesn’t work anymore. I hate email!” She’s come to a basic understanding with her team that if something is urgent, they can pick up the phone or schedule a time to talk on her open calendar. Otherwise, just put it in iDoneThis to appear in the digest the next day — the one email that everyone knows will be read and paid attention by all, including by the fearless CEO. “It helps streamline my chaos,” she says.
Balancing the Work Week
One of the most notable things about the way that Love With Food works is their ingeniously balanced work schedule. The team comes into the office for regular work hours every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, everyone works from home.
The schedule compels people to be quite deliberate in order to maximize their face-to-face time. Meetings can only happen on those three days, so it’s less likely that people will push things off to the next day. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, people gain as much as up to two hours of their day that they would’ve spent commuting.
Both Aihui’s experience as an engineer and her desire as a manager for her team to remain effective inspired the alternating arrangement providing both open collaboration and quiet working space. Aihui comments, “The best time to code is when I’m being left alone. I know being in an office can be very distracting.”
On Tuesday and Thursdays then, “It’s much quieter, you can concentrate on things. A lot of things that we do — whether it’s making a sales call, writing email, building brand partnerships — can be done anywhere. And basically I trust everyone to do their own job. If I don’t trust people to do their job, I won’t hire them.”
Finding the Company Rhythm
Whether in the office or not, the team uses Campfire to chat and ask questions every day. When travelling together to conferences such as BlogHer or the Fancy Food Show, the team will keep in touch through group chat on WhatsApp.
With so many tools and practices to keep track of, every new employee gets access to a handbook explaining what tools are used as well as when and why they’re used to help get them in the flow of things right away.
For Aihui, her journey as a founder and manager has been about finding the tools to make her life easier but overall, it’s been about getting into the right rhythm. “It took a few months to find a rhythm and to find the right tools for communication. That’s why iDoneThis has played a big role in that. It’s part of the company’s rhythm now.”
We’re so proud that we contribute to Love With Food’s working rhythm to help them curate delicious treats and fight hunger.
September is Hunger Action Month, a nationwide campaign to support local food banks and encourage community action. Celebrity chef Ming Tsai partnered with LWF to curate September’s box. Find out more here.
Why I Decided to Move Away From My Team to Live in Vegas
For six years, John Todero worked to build his marketing company Dyverse in Orlando. He decided to relocate over 2,000 miles away with his small team still in Orlando. John tells us about what spurred his decision to move to the hopeful lights of Downtown Las Vegas.
While the number one benefit of being an entrepreneur is the freedom from others telling you what to do and how to do it, the truth is, running a company also comes with a lot of responsibilities that can tie you down. Always working long hours to make sure everything gets done on time and ensuring that everyone stays productive, I never felt it was the right time to up and move — even though I’d felt the urge for awhile.
After grinding it out for six years in Downtown Orlando running my marketing company, Dyverse, I had a real longing to spread my wings and explore what living in other cities would be like. All the same, I had a small in-house team working with me and I wasn’t sure if our foundation was strong enough yet to be working remotely from different cities.
Meanwhile in October 2012, we launched a new concept called LiveUrbn.com, an apartment locator service with a social mission that promotes living and working in a city’s urban core. For years I’d felt that urban development could be a major solution for many economic and environmental issues, and I’m a big believer in the power of walkable urbanism. “Living urban” facilitates a more exciting social and walkable lifestyle and helps create communities and collaboration.
Learning about what Tony Hsieh was doing with the Downtown Project in Las Vegas inspired me to be a part of it — so much so that I finally made the decision to take a chance and move out here.
The Downtown Inspiration
What’s going on here in Downtown Vegas is unique. I often use the analogy that Tony Hsieh is creating a real-life Disney World, building businesses, streetscapes, characters, a city from scratch. Every month there is something new in the works.
One of the most amazing aspects of the Downtown Project is how bottom-up most of the development has been. Yes, there’s a lot of money being invested in real estate and construction, but there are no mega projects trying to change Downtown Vegas in one fell swoop.
Instead there are many relatively low-cost, high return-on-community initiatives like the Container Park — a converted shipping container multispace for retail, restaurants, and recreation; Work in Progress — a coworking, learning, and meeting space; and the Learning Village, made up of a series of portable trailers where some of the world’s top thought leaders regularly contribute to the Downtown Speaker Series.
A small billboard promoting the Downtown Speaker Series claims “Downtown Makes You Smarter.” I couldn’t agree more with this statement, as I often feel like I’m getting a free MBA with all the talks and mentors I’ve had access to since I moved here.
Right now the Downtown Project is about one year into a five-year initial plan. It’s really incredible what has been done already and I’m excited to see what takes shape over the next several years.
Meeting the Remote Work Challenge
The good news is I couldn’t be happier that I made the decision to move out to Vegas. I found that I was more than capable of working with my team remotely, and I’ve actually seen a lot of growth in my core business Dyverse since I moved here.
Saying that, running a company and working with a remote team offers its challenges. To help keep things running as smoothly as possible, while not being around my team physically, we rely on a few key communication and organization tools. Skype is our main day-to-day method for easy communication, and we also use Codebase as our project management software.
We started using iDoneThis after I met its CEO and Vegas Tech community member Walter Chen. iDonethis is a simple but useful tool that keeps everyone posted on what each member of the team has accomplished for the day. I’m excited about anything that helps improve communication between myself and my remote team.
It’s important to find the right tools for distributed teams, and I support any that help facilitate the ability to work from anywhere and “LiveUrbn”!
Looking Ahead to LiveUrbn
I’d always thought I’d move to a bigger startup scene like New York or San Francisco. Vegas had never even really entered my mind as a possibility. But as someone passionate about urban development and what the Downtown Project was doing, I believed Downtown Vegas was the best place for me to grow my company.
It’s been seven months since I moved to Las Vegas. I’m currently working on getting some traction with LiveUrbn, and potentially partnering in some capacity with the Downtown Project. As with any startup, there have been unexpected setbacks and figuring out exactly what LiveUrbn should be. When we first launched LiveUrbn, the idea was to start in six major start-up cities, but now we’ve decided to focus on one test market — Downtown Las Vegas!
It feels great to know that if I want to, I have the freedom to work from any location and still grow my business. That freedom is what the essence of “LiveUrbn” is all about, and what we hope to help others accomplish.
John Todero is the founder of Dyverse — a niche Internet marketing and website solutions company for multi-family apartment communities — and LiveUrbn, a service that aims to provide flexible housing options for those looking to live close to the city’s core.
If you’ve ever had to suffer through trust fall exercises or offsites that try to make over ugly corporate morale in one go, you probably dismiss company retreats as a waste of time and money.
Yet the company retreat remains one concrete strategy that startups employ to fuel their success. When you work for a startup, where every day is basically a trust fall, a retreat is not just a superficial motivational exercise in decreeing “let’s do better” but an opportunity to take a step back and realign, rethink, and break down how to do better.
In July, iDoneThis went on a week-long team trip to downtown Las Vegas to do just that. While we’d visited before to connect with Zappos and the Downtown Project, this year things are a bit different: our CEO Walter lives in Vegas and we’re proud to be in the Vegas Tech Fund portfolio alongside exciting companies like Zirtual, LaunchBit, and Skillshare.
We had a fantastic time connecting with the Vegas startup and Downtown Project community, working out some of our own company kinks, and of course, having fun. We thought we’d share some tips on what made our all-hands trip effective to consider for your own retreats, offsites, or meetups!
1. Retreat to a higher level to reflect, problem-solve, and prioritize.
Despite the label, a work retreat isn’t a withdrawal or escape from work but an opportunity to lean into it on a higher level. Retreat from “business as usual” mentalities in order to better reflect on and have critical conversations about direction, problem-solving, and priorities.
The team behind the e-reader app Readmill views their retreat as a window to “take a break, peel back a layer, and talk about who we are, what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. The so-called three w’s.” That stepping back allows you to set larger goals and align depth of vision.
During our week in Vegas, we had a chance to dig into questions such as:
how can we improve our individual and collective productivity?
how can we rethink our development process to better pinpoint and handle unknowns?
what and how should we build next?
These “peel back a layer” conversations are harder to initiate and sustain when we’re all focused on trying to get stuff done, which means that a retreat is a great chance to have them. Our sessions were specifically scheduled but the content was more free-spirited. We wanted to get away from the stolid spirit that meetings can slide into and gain a bit of elevation instead.
2. Find a good place to work.
Remote workers understand the challenge of coming by dependable internet outside an office environment. Finding a relatively quiet place with decent internet (and decent coffee) can be quite the treasure hunt. Luckily we were able to spend much of our time at the downtown co-working space Work in Progress, alongside other Vegas startups enjoying its natural light, meeting rooms, and superfast internet.
Wherever you plan your retreat or offsite, make sure working internet and quiet meeting spaces are available beforehand to prevent wasting precious time and patience scrambling for workarounds.
3. Disconnect from devices.
Connecting as human beings takes effort, and because we’re a distributed company, we’re hyper-aware of the importance of cultivating team camaraderie. CEO of Auttomatic Toni Schneider figures that spending dedicated time to get together would be “beneficial to any company … to deepen personal connections and get to know the ‘people behind the jobs’.”
So step away from the computers and phones.
Use mealtimes as a chance to connect. We cooked and ate together and became repeat customers at the delicious, cosy EAT. Opened by Natalie Young, a former chef at places like the MGM Grand, EAT was one of the Downtown Project’s first small business investments and stands as a model for the revitalization effort, literally nourishing the neighborhood and thankfully nourishing us.
We sang our hearts out at karaoke (and might have had more than one impromptu singing and/or dance sessions), had supermarket adventures, and checked out the downtown scene.
The unplanned fun was just as key as the planned — what was important was that we had the space to have it.
Getting to know the people behind the jobs can sound a bit hokey, but it’s especially valuable for people who don’t see each other face-to-face regularly, who tend to interact less because of the nature of their jobs, and who are often collectively heads-down, working away.
4. Connect, empower, and learn with the people around you.
As part of the Vegas Tech Fund, we’re lucky to be a distributed team who’s also growing roots in a physical place. As a way to get to know the Vegas tech community better, we turned to food and moonshine, throwing an iDoneThis potluck at Walter’s apartment. It was a friendly, low-key way to meet people we saw regularly at the co-working space and get to know other startup folks in the area.
We also helped put on a Vegas Tech Fund mini-summit of product sessions, a day-long version of the speed-feedback events started by Gary Chou and Christina Cacciopo pairing creators and startups with advisors.
Community isn’t just about connecting but also about empowerment. And we figured that bringing in startup mentors and experts into the world of the Downtown Project and helping each other grow as companies was a cool way to learn, connect, and empower in a supercharged way.
5. Manage energy rather than time.
If you’re going on a longer trip that requires regular work, keep in mind that a change in scenery and increased time spent with others can detract from usual levels of productivity. Even when your meetups are shorter — say a one- or two-day offsite — it’s important not to overpack your schedule, which will take its toll on people’s energy and enthusiasm, and ultimately the effectiveness of the outing. Most people need time to decompress and rest — from both work and fun activities.
As for us, we limited most of our strict planning to the product sessions, certain meals out and social events that required pre-arrangements, invitations or reservations, as well as those higher-level meetings, but we also left a lot of room for work and play to unfold more naturally. People took time for themselves to work out, take naps, and play ping-pong — but it would’ve been helpful if we’d been more deliberate in planning for the mental shift caused by switching out of our usual remote work modes.
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People often ask how you build a company culture when you’re not in the same place together. While informed by location and place, culture is actually people-based — about our choices, decisions, and values in how we move forward. Culture is how we build ourselves and our product, those three w’s of who we are, what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and our downtown Vegas retreat helped us learn, grow, and reflect with clearer eyes on how to do better.
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What do you think about company retreats and offsites? Do you have any helpful tips? Share with us in the comments.