My hope is that in talking to them about their place, we might find some answers to my quest to find living examples of the Human Workplace.
My thesis is that just as the advent of the steam engine eventually turned all our organizations into quasi machines and turned most people into helpless zombies, so the advent of the web has the power to restore our metaphor of the organization to the Tribe and hence has the power also to transform us poor old zombies back into autonomous human beings again.
(Here is Dan)
silverorange was born on PEI in 1999 when a group of 7 teenage guys who had been working out of parental homes and bedrooms made the call to come together. They selected each other as the best in the web world on PEI. Being a small place they all knew each other and some had become very good friends. Being teens, they were also very idealistic and did not want to have a regular 9-5 job working for the "man". They wanted to have a society where they could help each other work in a way that suited them as people. They wanted to have their own way. As you will see they have worked hard to preserve this society and have along the way also made a good living.
(Here is Steve)
So guys, most organizations make Financial Growth for the organization itself the most important goal - what's your take on that? (I will not identify the speakers as they all pitched in - I offer you the essence of their responses. "I" is the voice of the one who spoke at the time)
"I feel that the idea of eternal financial growth is a fallacy. Say making 5% compounded is easy early along the curve but as the base grows to a certain size, making 5% compounded is essentially unsustainable - you have to do increasingly dangerous things to make the numbers. Yes - such as take on bad work, or bad people, or do things that you know are wrong."
(Now Rob - Yes I see what you mean for in nature there are limits to all growth both in the size of a being or in the size of a group. Too many deer = a crash. And doing the wrong things time and time again to make the numbers is probably what makes more traditional organizations that are fixed on total growth so unpleasant to work in)
"Yes all systems have natural checks and balances."
So what then is your organizational goal?
"I think that it is to foster an organization that supports our "Whole Lives". To create and maintain a platform that enables each of us to do the things that we want to be able to do. To set in motion an organization that would be self-sustaining and that we can rely on to support all of us for a long long time. So we definitely do not set out to conquer the world which is implicit in the Total Financial Growth Model. Nor did we sell out in the boom and just take the money."
So Dan can spend 2 months of the year in Venezuela, and some of you work for Mozilla, or Digg or go back to school for a while?
Do you have a financial plan at all?
"Yes and no - most business plans are also based on a fantasy that you can predict the future in detail. Most also set tight goals when the environment is shifting that is also very risky. You can get trapped doing the wrong thing very hard when the environment has changed.
Instead, we set broad goals. (here is a link to Dan's view of how best to plan for the future) In the context of never being able to know the future in detail we...(quote from Dan's post) have no master plan at silverorange. The cat is out of the bag! We do however have broad goals and ideals that factor into our daily, monthly, and yearly decisions. We always have these goals and ideals in mind. We also make decisions the good old fashioned way. The necessary people sit as equals and hammer it out. Often the conversation becomes heated, in the good way. When we are done the best decision has been made for us.
When I look back over the past seven years of silverorange I see a route that has veered its way around tremendous obstacles, some we saw coming, and others we had no idea that we were dodging. Our process of quick, frequent, and small decision making has led us down a safe and secure path.
If I was an investor I would know that you pulled your cashflow projections out of your ass. I wouldn’t care. I would look for the following:
- What are the overall goals & ideals that you are striving for?
- Has you surrounded yourself with a team that can hammer out good small decisions?
- Are you willing to have your idea bend, warp, & mutate based on frequent, small, decisions?
I propose that we all change to process and people based business plans. One, maybe two pages at most."
Thinking about your "whole lives", how important is play in your work life?
"We don't play with each other a lot outside of work but, depending on the load at work, we can and do play a lot sometimes. But more important than play is how hard we work to stay well connected as a society. Here we are very determined and disciplined."
Every Monday we all have a "family breakfast" We all come here to the T and C. On Friday we all have a "family dinner" and we all go to have a curry lunch at the Churchill. These meals bookend the week and their informality enables us to both to fool around a bit but also to clear the air and to talk about our work and our relationships so that we constantly reduce friction and bring the group closer. We also have an annual trip to Boston where we all go way together and hang out. We work hard to stay close and to maintain the trust where all can speak their mind and be themselves.
We talk all the time with each other to help us all navigate into an uncertain future. These meals are the most important part of our planning and management process."
Now Kelly has 3 kids and some of you guys are married now - how will having families and spouses affect you all? Families can exert all sorts of centrifugal forces on work.
"Well I suspect that having families will actually make us more stable. There is even more a need to provide for our 'Whole Lives."'
So what about children in the workplace?
"Well Saul comes into the office every Friday. I can definitely see the day when we will have to find a way to have our own childcare onsite."
You have grown in staff numbers very gradually and you have stayed inside the limits of magic numbers - tell me about how you hire people and how new people are eventually integrated into the "Tribe".
"We are now 11 people from a start of 7 in 1999 and we are looking for one new member now. Hiring is very difficult. Interviews are very unreliable for what we look for. We look of course for technical skill - that is what most companies seem to focus on. But we mostly look for the fit as a person. What is their character like and will they fit into our culture? Will they in effect fit into our tribe? I find it so odd that people will put up with all sorts of destructive personal behaviour while holding onto the technical side as being the only thing that matters."
Yes and sometimes the most technically competent are the most destructive! So what do you do to find the fit?
" For us the interviews are just the screen. If we really like someone - again accepting their technical skill having a feel that they will fit into our culture - we offer a one month contract that can end with either party saying goodbye. If the person passes this test, we offer a 6 month contract. At the end of 6 months both sides know there is a fit with our culture or not."
What do you mean fit into the culture? Tell me more about the silverorange culture.
"We openly challenge each other all the time. I don't mean that we fight but that we speak out minds about what each of us are doing. Peer review happens everyday and in all settings. To fit here you have to be able to be comfortable with giving and in receiving opinion about what is going on for real and what you are doing for real."
"Some of the key points we tend to make to each other is the question of whether the other person is doing the task the right way or the easy way. In most cases we all know in our hearts that the right, or the hard way, is often the best way but we are only human so we are temped to try the easy way. We call each other out on this a lot."
I think we can do this because we have all become friends and know that this criticism is not personal but is all about helping us all do better. Without the trust - this would not work. We all do this to all of us. We do not have a top down process we are a real team where all have a voice and we all expect to hear from each other.
So you can see that if someone cannot live like this, they know it very soon. You can also see why we work so hard to provide safe venues such as breakfast and lunch for this conversation to take place. You can also see why this type of conversation replaces the "planning" that you see in most organizations."
"So the heart of our culture is a comfort in being straight with each other".
You meet face to face a lot - how did the intranet help?
"We are often very dispersed. At one point we had 3 in New Zealand, 1 in Kingston and 2 here. The intranet helps keep geographic and time distance from being a problem. It also helps us to see what is going on with out poking our nose into everyone else's business.
Each of us have strengths that others don't have. No one "manages" people who know more than they but it is comforting to look over a shoulder on the intranet and see what the expert is doing to help all of us. If you have a question then you can ask it - but we don't have "reporting" in the way that you do in so called normal organizations. We don't "Manage" a lot here as a result but we also know what is going on - this cuts down on a lot of unnecessary friction and work."
"We have a hierarchy here but it is not based on a managerial position but on competency. For instance Dave is our genius in System admin, Dan is the President but this is not a strong area for him but it is for Nathan. So Nathan and Dave have the key relationship in this field and the rest of us trust that they will do the right thing."
So how does someone new really join the tribe? It cannot just be the end of a probation of 6 months as there is ownership as well and wages involved?
"We have an unusual pay system where we all get paid the same."
So like a true tribe the hunters share the food?
"Yes - This meant in practice that in the early years the employees who had no ownership got paid more than the founders."
How does an employee go the next step then to ownership?
"We agonized over this and in the end arrived at this way. The point being that the essence of the founding experience is that we carried the early employees, we took the risk and we built the brand. We saw that there was not only a value to the ownership but that there was also a sacrifice involved in being an owner. So employees can buy up to 20% of a full ownership share in any one year. So it would take 5 years of maxing out to have an ownership position. This is quite a burden as the share expands with the growth of the value of the firm."
Ahh - an initiation process!
"Yes I suppose so."
So now the big question - how in this unusual culture of fierce mutual support and accountability do you relate to your clients?
"We will no longer act as merely a supplier. We seek clients who wish to partner with us. This is more than words. In commercial sites we offer the site as a foundation of a contract where we both act to improve the tool to grow the results of the clients and hence for our business. We share in the growth that comes for using our tool. We don't sell a product we sell our ongoing expertise in an area where we help a business grow their web business. In this way we mirror with our clients what we do at home with each other."
"We aim for sustainability and hence growth that can be relied on. We tell each other the truth - especially about doing it right rather than easy. We respect the other person's skills that are often not our own and we rely on those that have the knowledge to take the lead. We share the risks and the rewards. We in effect own a piece of each other. We have fun and we like each other."
Thank you Dan, Nathan and Steve