Corralling brilliant and creative individuals to work together as a team is incredibly difficult. That’s why every successful company where people are both productive and happy feels a little magical. The harried, stressful environment or the disengaged, sullen office are both far more common sights.
You might think that creative and productive individuals easily combine to form creative and productive teams, but I’ve noticed that the opposite happens more often than not. An individual’s creativity and productivity are extremely fragile things that are liable to fall apart when individuals are put in a room to work on problems that are complex, time-constrained, and flat-out hard.
A well-intentioned response that I often see out of productive people is to get frustrated when not enough is getting done and go 100% into heads-down mode, but that just exacerbates the problem. What ends up happening is embitterment, disengagement, and finally, attrition. Preventing all that from happening is the other half of everyone’s job.
Tom Sachs is a contemporary artist famous for his sculptures which are elaborate DIY recreations of modern engineering and design masterpieces (like the space program) who has a surprising take on how to get creative people to work together and get stuff done. In his studio, if you’ve done your work, you’ve only done half of your job.
‘[S]ent does not mean received’ is a profound thing. Half of your job in this studio is doing your work, the other half of your job is communicating that it’s been done. Because if you do it, and I don’t hear about it, how do I know what’s going on? I’m not trying to control everything, but in an intimate work environment, where we’re really trying to develop something complex, a nod, saying, ‘I got it,’ helps moves things along.
Focusing too hard on getting stuff done just produces more stuff that needs to get done, and that’s a trap. This is most poignant to people who’ve worked on projects with lots of moving parts. Communicating that you’ve gotten the work done is another half to your job that’s absolutely vital.
(on the walls at Shopify)
Ultimately, we as humans are extremely sensitive creatures and the moments when we do our best work can quickly become fleeting. In Tom Sachs’s understated words, “Working with 15 people is very difficult.”
To me, this is what people talk about when they talk about company culture: it’s the entire other half of everyone’s job to make the company run smoothly. What Sachs says about artists rings true for anyone involved in creative work.
The artist’s creative process is a very fragile thing. Nowhere else do you find people who are as brilliant and self-motivated as in the arts and yet as fragile and insecure. Working with 15 people is very difficult. We’re trying to cultivate the indulgences of the creative process and, at the same time, eliminate creativity as a capricious gesture. In other words, a little creativity goes a long way. It’s like chili pepper. A lot of artists are filled with caprice and silliness. Finding that balance is the key to everything.
Walter Chen is co-founder of iDoneThis, an ex-lawyer, and an amateur Starcraft player. You can follow his tweets at @smalter.
Many of the startup companies we work with have built incredible cultures and teams. Cultures that are quirky, fun-loving, hardworking, energetic and adventurous. Teams that are tight-knit, creative, dedicated and happy. While there are a thousand words we could use to describe the characteristics of each company’s culture, we all know what a picture is worth.
Photographs can tell you more about a company’s culture and their team experience than any lengthy blog post we could ever write. So we decided to ask some of the innovative startups we work with:
Send us a photo that best represents your company culture, and tell us why.
We share their awesome responses below so you can get a glimpse of the inner lives of ten iDoneThis musers companies.
1. Kitchensurfing is an online community and global marketplace connecting private, professional chefs with food enthusiasts everywhere.
“Kitchensurfing is a worldwide community of chefs and people that love to cook. Our customers love inviting our chefs into their homes and offices for special events and meals with friends and family. But! The Kitchensurfing team also loves doing right by our chefs. Everyone’s heard of Christmas in July, so the KS team decided to cook Thanksgiving in June for a dozen or so of our most active chefs. We roasted a turkey (hard to find in June!) and had a full array of sides. We’re fortunate enough to have an office that doubles as a test kitchen.
I’m one of the founders and CEO in the blue-checked shirt (the solo shot of me needs to be credited to Peter Hobbs). The gentleman that’s excessively excited about the turkey is our community director, Max Siegal, who cooked the turkey. The multi-person shot shows our little dining room, some KS staff, and a few of our chefs.”
Co-Founder & CEO, Kitchensurfing
2. Olark is an easy-to-install service that enables you to chat live with any visitor to your site.
“Yes, this is at our OFFICE. We do things a bit differently here at Olark… Redwood trees, gymnastic rings, team lunches, and a cat that runs the meetings between our Palo Alto and Ann Arbor offices. It’s all in the name of building the best live chat software around (sorry we weren’t able to share the photos of our top secret control center).”
3. LKR Social Media is a team of online marketing whizzes that trains small businesses to leverage social media.
“We don’t have an office, but we do meet up for in-person retreats at least once per year. Here’s a snapshot from our latest retreat that was held in the Ace Hotel in New York City. I like this picture because it shows our value of not taking ourselves too seriously. Our customers come to us because they want social media to be easy, not a complicated burden. We try to keep things fun and light to take away from our customer’s stress, not add to it!”
Founder, LKR Social Media
4. TravelPod helps users create an online travel blog, upload photos from their phone while on the road and participate in travel challenges.
“We work hard and we play hard.”
Founder & GM, TravelPod
5. EZTable is a 24/7 online reservation platform for diners and restauranteurs that started in Taiwan and is expanding.
“EZTABLE focuses on customers. The biggest mission is to figure out what the customer needs. “Hack, everything” is what we believe and we learn hard from failures. Without failures, no successes.”
Co-Founder & CEO, EZTable
6. SocialToaster helps you engage and empower your fans to share your social media content.
“SocialToaster has a dynamic, fast-paced, energetic culture that embraces the work-hard/play-hard mentality. We take great pride in the closeness of our team. We regularly participate in extra-curricular activities outside of the office… And although the size of our lunch table has grown into a lengthy “Hogwarts style” table in recent months, we still try to eat together everyday.
The SocialToaster environment, and associated culture, is truly the envy of Baltimore. Not only does our team work hard and play hard together, inside (and outside) the office. But our office is somewhat of a playground, as well - with a velour room (company lounge area with velour couches and coffee tables), eclectic renovated warehouse office space, and am onsite pool and hot-tub.”
Founder & CEO, SocialToaster
7. Alton Lane customizes men’s clothing to fit your exact measurements and personalized style online.
“At Alton Lane we are always evolving with our customers and their individual and collective experience as our most important guide. The only way to achieve this is to empower and supply our team of amazing people with tools that assist them in being more efficient. We value creativity, innovation and fun in everything we do and believe that communicating across teams allows us to break down information silos and concentrate our efforts in the most effective ways.”
CEO, Alton Lane
8. ShopLocket is an easy-to-use e-commerce site that lets you sell anything from anywhere.
“At ShopLocket we work hard and we ping pong hard. Staying tight-knit is very important to us. You have to hire the right people, someone that you’re willing to be with for long, long hours. And someone that’s good at ping pong.”
Community Manager, ShopLocket
9. FreeAgent is a stress-free, simple accounting solution for small businesses and freelancers.
“We’re very proud of our team here at FreeAgent. Not only are they an awesome, friendly bunch of people, but they’re also the reason why our business is going from strength to strength - and that’s why we’re committed to keeping them happy.
But it’s not just the Aeron chairs, Herman Miller desks and Apple Macs that we give all of our staff that creates a happy office culture. Nor is it our shiny Edinburgh office with its fridge full of soft drinks and beer, or the fact that we pay for everyone’s lunch each Friday. Rather, it’s because we’ve built an environment where people actually want to share their talents, support each other and make FreeAgent the best cloud accounting system for small businesses and freelancers worldwide.
We love the camaraderie that runs through FreeAgent: not only in our headquarters, but across all of our staff working remotely in the UK and the USA. Whether its our Edinburgh-based engineers hot-desking to develop new features - or our developers hooking up over Skype to solve problems - it’s great to see dozens of exceptionally talented people working together and having fun doing so.”
Co-Founder & CTO, FreeAgent
10. Springest makes it easy to find and compare online educational programs for personal and professional development.
“Here’s a picture of our balcony a few months ago during a Ruby Hack Night we held with about 40 Ruby developers. It shows 5 Springest guys working on PingPongGuru for ranking and displaying our ping pong results… But of course there’s beer and a nice view of early 17th century buildings along the canals of Amsterdam. It shows our open culture and especially our drive to always share numbers about performance. iDoneThis does for our normal operation what PingPongGuru and our hack nights do for ping pong ;).”
Founder & CEO, Springest
Looking at all these photos reminds of me of something I once read, that humans across cultures and generations can tell a fake smile from a real smile. This is because of the orbicularis oculi muscles, located near the outer corner of the eyes. Those muscles cannot be voluntarily moved, and thus a forced smile is always discernible from an emotionally honest smile.
The same could be said of company culture. Bells, whistles and office amenities aside, you can’t fake or force employee happiness and engagement. And as many of these photos show, it’s those employee smiles that are the proud focal point for our muser companies and what drive their success.
Now it’s high time we shot our iDoneThis team photo!
Ginni Chen is the Chief Happiness Officer at iDoneThis. When not striving for the happiness of iDoneThis members, she’s a rock climbing instructor, skier and collector of first edition books. You should follow her on Twitter at @GinniChen.
Sarah Hepola, on the weight of to-do lists.
VHX is bringing digital video distribution up to speed with this internet-fueled modern age, delivering DRM-free video, such as Aziz Ansari’s Dangerously Delicious and Indie Game: The Movie, directly to fans. Having launched as a social video community — a way to discover, share, and queue video for later — VHX could soon be seeing their distribution platform and consumption community interact in interesting ways down the road.
We talked with co-founder, Jamie Wilkinson, who describes how the timing felt right for VHX’s push to help small filmmakers and artists self-distribute their work: “It really helps leverage all the growth we’ve seen in social media for people to actually financially support themselves outside of the old studio distribution model. For filmmakers, it’s really great because we don’t take any rights restrictions or exclusivity, so we push things to market super fast and work in a way where every project is individualized and has a bespoke solution.”
Jamie also appreciates the bespoke solution that iDoneThis provides for the VHX team, with its flexibility regarding entries and settings. “Everybody uses it differently and it’s interesting seeing just how it’s evolved as people use it more.” For Jamie, iDoneThis’s most important function is providing talking points for the next morning. “It’s been really good just in terms of thinking about what will get accomplished that day.”
The VHX team is in the process of expanding (calling all hand models!). Jamie explains how, with the company centered in New York and remote team members like himself, “we lean really heavily on tools to make sure that everybody is up to sync all the time. I have a lot of experience, especially with open-source software development, so I know how critical it is having good communication lines.”
iDoneThis is one communication tool among many that VHX uses, including email, HipChat, Google Hangouts, Asana, and Github. “It’s a question of having a good Swiss Army knife.” Jamie elaborates on how one tool shouldn’t try to do everything, that instead, “it works having a Unix style, having small tools that do certain things really well.” iDoneThis is the small but powerful tool that keeps everybody in the loop. “With the chat, you’re going to miss things and you shouldn’t be expected to see everything necessarily. With project management tools, it’s more static, and you kind of tune it out because there’s so much activity.”
Many of us grapple with the challenge of navigating the relentless stream of information and activity at work. Jamie sees our daily digest feature as a great solution for dealing with the flood. “iDoneThis’s daily digest model has been really great because it’s a summary of what has been done and it gives you a high-level view. It’s exactly how start-ups probably should be run and how we try to run [VHX]. I think there are almost lessons for services like Twitter. I mean, they finally started pushing out these digest-like highlight emails that I think most people turn off, but if it’s something you know is important, you pay really close attention to your inbox and you’ll pay attention to everything that you’re looking at.”
We’re proud to serve as one of the handy tools on VHX’s swiss army knife of work solutions, helping VHX democratize the world of digital video!
I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon among productive people: they often overlook their own productivity. The more productive you are, the more likely you are to get down on yourself and think at the end of the day, “I wasn’t very productive today.”
Because ambitious people measure themselves by their progress towards achieving audacious goals, they often can’t appreciate a single day’s worth of tiny, incremental advancements that they’ve made. Plus, the fuller your day is with activity, the harder it seems to pinpoint what exactly it is that you did at all.
Between starting Netscape, Opsware, Ning, and Andreessen Horowitz, Marc Andreessen has done monumental work in his career and seems particularly at risk to fall into this trap. To arm himself against the daunting imperative of making meaningful progress toward his big objectives, Marc came up with a system: the Anti-Todo List. It’s his way to stop and recognize his own accomplishments, measured not by a project’s impressive success, but in increments, to fuel his motivation for getting stuff done day after day.
What you do is this: every time you do something — anything — useful during the day, write it down in your Anti-Todo List on the card.
Each time you do something, you get to write it down and you get that little rush of endorphins that the mouse gets every time he presses the button in his cage and gets a food pellet.
And then at the end of the day, … take a look at today’s card and its Anti-Todo list and marvel at all the things you actually got done that day.
Note that he’s advocating for more than crossing items off your to-do list. His Anti-Todo List gives him credit for everything he gets done, not just what’s preordained by his to-do list. And keeping a separate list means that when you take stock of what you’ve achieved, you aren’t hounded by what’s still left to do.
There’s value gained from the act of slowing down to write down accomplishments, which is inaccessible without acknowledgment. It turns out that “being able to put more notches on my accomplishment belt, so to speak, by writing down things on my Anti-Todo list as I accomplish them throughout the day makes me feel marvelously productive and efficient[,] [f]ar more so than if I just did those things and didn’t write them down.”
Rather than waiting for a major milestone to celebrate an achievement, recognize that tiny, wonderful triumphs happen every single day. Turn that into a daily process of rejuvenation and inspiration after a hard-day’s work, and you’ll have added a crucial ingredient to your day that maintains the positive emotional balance necessary to accomplishing great things.
Chris Savage, CEO of Wistia, wrote about how magnifying your field of vision when it comes to your perspective on progress is key to generating the momentum and joy to accomplish big things. He expressed this lesson concisely in two graphs:
There’s a hard road to travel to get to big-time achievements and reaching heady dreams, whether it’s making your first million, mastering the piano, or running a marathon, and if you’re too exhausted every day to take stock of your successes, you’ll lose heart. Take a note from Marc Andreessen:
[Y]ou know those days when you’re running around all day and doing stuff and talking to people and making calls and responding to emails and filling out paperwork and you get home and you’re completely exhausted and you say to yourself, “What the hell did I actually get done today?”
Your Anti-Todo list has the answer.
Paul Graham’s advice for startups, which applies to tackling challenges in general.
Start small, and then onward and forward to big things!
We live in a culture that seems obsessed with being productive.
While increasing our output and doing more with our time is certainly an admirable goal, according to Tony Schwartz, author of Be Excellent at Anything, that misguided approach is actually liable to hurt your productivity.
Without real restoration and rejuvenation throughout the day, people (knowingly) hold themselves back because they are worried about “pacing” their energy to make it through the day.
This is incredibly damaging to your potential, because it distributes your efforts at 25% across your whole work day instead of reaching 90% output at the moments that correspond with your body’s naturally productive rhythms of alertness. The result is that you aren’t able to do your best work and you aren’t getting the rest you need to rejuvenate yourself either.
I know I’ve fallen into the trap of conventional thinking that to be productive, I just need to work harder. I spend more and more hours at the desk, but when I look back, I’m not sure where the time went.
To Schwartz, not being able to push yourself to 90% output without worry is the biggest impediment holding you back from being truly productive and producing your best work. True productivity is determined by better energy management rather than simply cranking out more hours at your desk.What do our energy levels actually look like throughout the day?
We all have a sense of our energy level, whether we feel productive or not, whether we’re alert and excited or tired and groggy, but most of us try to ignore it and don’t know the science underlying its effect on our work. It turns out that our energy functions according to what psychophysiologist Peretz Lavie called “ultradian rhythms,” or natural cycles that take place during the day.
Lavie conducted a fascinating series of experiments where he put young adults on an ultrashort 15 minute awake-5 minute sleeping schedule in 8-hour sessions, first from 4 pm until midnight, and then after 6-7 hours of sleep, he put them on the 15/5 schedule from about 7 am until early afternoon. He then observed when his test subjects fell asleep and couldn’t fall asleep during this bizarre sleep schedule and came up with some surprising findings.
In the afternoon and evenings, we get sleepy at two times: at 4:30 pm and at 11:30 pm. But in the morning, we get sleepy every 90 minutes. These 90-minute cycles are our ultradian rhythms which define when we’re naturally feeling awake and productive. We perform our best in between those periods of drowsiness.
(via DeeperDish)How do we sync to our natural rhythm?
Those who work with instead of against their ultradian rhythm perform better, according to a study on world-class violinists. You might expect the best violinists to practice until their fingers bleed. Not so. Top-tier violinists practice no more than 4 1/2 hours a day, in 90-minute bursts, plus they got more sleep than their peers (notably, 20-30 minute afternoon naps).
It’s not just about concentrating when your energy levels are high. It’s also absolutely vital that you rest when your energy levels hit bottom. One piece of research that Schwartz regularly cites is a Federal Aviation Administration study of pilots on long haul flights that shows the crucial importance of resting when your energy levels are low:
One group of pilots was given an opportunity to take 40-minute naps mid-flight, and ended up getting an average of 26 minutes of actual sleep. Their median reaction time improved by 16% following their naps.
Non-napping pilots, tested at a similar halfway point in the flight, had a 34% deterioration in reaction time. They also experienced 22 micro sleeps of 2-10 seconds during the last 30 minutes of the flight. The pilots who took naps had none.
If you push yourself to continue working during periods of low energy, you risk continued grogginess and low performance. It’s critical that we acknowledge our body’s natural rhythms and align our periods of work and relaxation with them to work in a sustainably productive way.You improve by pushing your practice, not yourself during low energy.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” is what you need to become an expert in your field. Research from psychologist Anders Ericsson on deliberate practice shows that it’s true strain and “wear and tear” that helps people build expertise.
(via K. A. Ericsson, Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406)
Although getting into a flow may feel good, sometimes we use the term “flow” to describe times when we’re not pushing ourselves very hard. But it’s the hard practice that allows us to improve. A good metaphor is weightlifting at the gym: while a good flow might involve a 30-minute walk and some light free weights, if you are looking to push yourself into chiseled, six-pack ab territory, you’ve gotta hurt.
Building muscle at that level doesn’t come without pushing into the territory of the uncomfortable, and this is why Schwartz and noted authors like Cal Newport are so adamant about these “hold nothing back” periods of work. During these sessions, it’s vital that we challenge ourselves with increasing difficulty and focus uncompromisingly on how to fix our weaknesses.
When deliberate practice corresponds with periods of intense concentration, we suss out our weaknesses, make progress, and do our best work.3 Important tricks for managing your energy
- Break your work sessions into 90-minute blocks: I tested this for myself, and I noticed that the feeling of reckless abandon in being able to give your all for those 90 minute periods was incredibly useful in allowing yourself to pour out creativity without having to think, “What will I have left for the end of the day?” It’s a surprising bit of mental jiujitsu, but it works: I feel energized and empowered to operate at peak levels because I know that it’s only for 90 minutes.
- After your 90-minute sessions, take 15 minute breaks: According to Schwartz, breaking up work periods into 90 minute sessions with the knowledge that there will be a 15 minute break at the end is a great process to get started with balancing energy and recovery throughout the day. This way, the 90 minute work period can be approached without having to worry about pacing or burnout: a scheduled break is just on the horizon. It seems strange to allow yourself these sorts of breaks if you are a person who prides themselves with being busy/productive (two very different things, actually), but on the advice of Schwartz and the complementary studies that support it, it’s definitely worth a try.
- Take Naps: The naps were the hardest sell for me, but after seeing the science behind napping by my buddy Leo Widrich, I was sold on at least giving them a go and was very glad I did: my productivity “dip” around 4pm is now all but gone, thanks to a quick 30-minute nap at 3pm. Schwartz gives this schedule as a sample:
Nick, by contrast, works intensely for approximately 90 minutes at a stretch, and then takes a 15-minute break before resuming work. At 12:15, he goes out for lunch for 45 minutes, or works out in a nearby gym.
At 3pm, he closes his eyes at his desk and takes a rest. Sometimes it turns into a 15- or 20-minute nap. Finally, between 4:30 and 5pm, Nick takes a 15-minute walk outside.
What did you think of the research in this post and Schwartz’s approach to finding a work schedule that works with you?
Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!
About the Author: Gregory Ciotti is the marketing guy at Help Scout, the invisible help desk software that makes email support a breeze for you and your customers. Get more from Greg on the Help Scout customer loyalty blog.
@allanbranch Yup, and we love it.
— Chris Savage (@csavage)
Wistia provides super easy, distinctive video hosting, management, and marketing for businesses. We wanted to find out from co-founder and CEO, Chris Savage, how Wistia uses iDoneThis and why they love it.
In the past year, Wistia has gone through a growth spurt, doubling to a total of fifteen people. Chris wrote a great blog post about the challenges of staying productive during such rapid growth, pointing out how Wistia’s “internal communication mechanisms have had to evolve so that they are less disruptive, more relevant, and more helpful.”
Allotted ample ownership and authority, people at Wistia have a great deal of freedom over what they do. As a result, as Chris explains, “it’s hard to know what everyone else is doing, which I think is really important.” So, the Wistia team uses iDoneThis to “facilitate what would often be those random connections that would happen if you were sitting next to somebody, if you were walking by somebody working on something.”
iDoneThis enables fast-growing companies like Wistia to revive something of the easy immediacy of two founders working in a room together, capturing valuable information that wouldn’t have been pre-set on a task list or deemed “worthy” of sending out yet another email. Chris notes, “That’s something that’s been really big. It’s good that other people can see that that’s happening, know that it’s important, and can comment on it.”
The Wistia team relies on tools like Yammer to keep the productivity engine running and continues to hold weekly stand-up meetings, but specifically for announcing goals for the week. iDoneThis is used for “a very different purpose,” says Chris. “It’s an accomplishment list and a way to show others what we’re working on. Other tools don’t supply that.”
What’s distinctive about the Wistia team is the obvious pride that they have in the company culture and the deliberate effort with which that culture is cultivated. Chris elaborates, “A big thing we wanted to do was start to write it down and talk about it and have a vocabulary, because we felt like if we don’t fight for it, we won’t be able to maintain it. It actually feels like a competitive advantage.”
Part of building that company culture meant defining a company identity, or the “Wistia way” of doing things. When Wistia launched a free version of its service in June, for example, they created a rap video instead of simply sending out an email and adding the plan to the pricing page. They did it the Wistia way: “Go a little over the top, have a lot of fun with it, and express our own excitement.”
We haven’t created a rap video about it, but we’re very excited that iDoneThis helps make the Wistia way happen!
How To Create Time:
1. Eliminate or reduce media
2. Work offline.
3. Do less.
4. Don’t make appointments or schedule meetings.
5. Sleep in two shifts.
6. Make time less precious.” —Read the full tips from Caterina Fake, not just on how to create time, but how to work with joy.
Sue Shellenbarger explores The Peak Time for Everything for WSJ.
Some takeaways: Nap around 2pm. Tired times make for better open-ended thinking. And retweeting chances increase between 3-6 pm.
Circadian and natural rhythms, and thus peak times for doing stuff, depend on the individual. Read on for some pretty interesting ideas on how to set your activity to your inner clock.
Felicia Day, Lifehacker, I’m Felicia Day, and This is How I Work