Minutes from the 12 July 2011: Kegerators, Bug Fix Bonuses, and Lab Weeks: How to Build and Nourish a Technology Company in the Web 2.0 world

About 15 people attended tonight’s meeting. Josh Zapin facilitated and Jeremy Kohler recorded the minutes.

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MEETING SPONSORS
Applied Trust (www.appliedtrust.com) provides refreshments, Copy Diva (www.copydiva.com) provides the audio-visual equipment, NCAR (www.ncar.ucar.edu) provides the facility, ONEWARE (www.oneware.com) sponsors the podcast, and ReturnPath (www.returnpath.net) sponsors the minutes.

Thanks also to Brian at covervillemedia.com for creating the podcast.

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ANNOUNCEMENTS
bC is developing a software fitness platform for editing routines on fitness equipment. bC needs technical help and seed funding: ltoukan@toukanconsulting.com.

Boulder Professional Placements has openings for ruby on rails, sql, and java developers.

RetrunPath is hiring developers and managers.  See returnpath.net for more details.

Crocs is looking for developers, QA, and project managers.  Go to Crocs.com for more details.

SurveyGizmo is hiring PHP developers, Designers, Sales reps, Customer support rockstars, Technical Writer, Billing Coordinator, and Javascript/HTML Developers.  Go to surveygizmo.com for more details.

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INTRODUCTION (JOSH ZAPIN)

The technology sector is roaring despite the bad economy. Technology workers are not so unemployed these days: Only 2 to 4 percent compared to the national rate of 9 percent. Talent, nurturing, and retention is tops in this high tech world.

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ABOUT THE SPEAKER

Christian Vaneck (christian@sgizmo.com) is CEO and cofounder of SurveyGizmo. He is first and foremost a technologist–and the original creator of SurveyGizmo 1.0. Striking the right balance of business vision and technology innovation, today Christian is the driving force behind SurveyGizmo, one of the most robust online data gathering tools in the marketplace. SurveyGizmo has won or placed in the Boulder County Business Report's prestigious Mercury 100 for the last three years.

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LINKS
www.SurveyGizmo.com

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CHRISTIAN VANECK

Perspective from a Bootstrapped Startup
The culture of our company, among all employees, is extremely important.

We will talk about how to maintain a culture, get people to treat the workplace as a home and stay engaged, and solve problems arising with company growth.

We are growing a lot. We have doubled every year since 2006. We are also hiring. Our culture had to change dramatically over time as we grew, especially when we reached 30 people. Teams and specialties arose, making it more complicated to maintain a community.

We have great technology, but our best asset is customer service. And that starts with great internal customer service. We have kids and dogs running around the office on a regular basis. We wanted to make the office where we want to spend our time–an enjoyable environment. We have lots of nerf, stuffed animals, and talking bacon strips. We work very, very hard, but we recognize that there is a need to vent. There's  a lot of stress.

We are bootstrapped rather than VC funded, which makes us somewhat unique: We're spending our own money. Once we spent more on food in a month than we did on marketing. Everyone that works here feels like it's a family, and that's what makes it enjoyable. We survey our candidates first. Then we have a phone interview. Then we have a personal interview, and then a group interview. The group is across the company, not just one department. Then you meet me, the CEO.

Myth: You can't be friends with your employees.

This is a hard one. But you can and should. It sucks sometimes, but it's worth it. We let people work on side projects together. Because our key employees really want to be active, we don't cut them off from the community. On the other hand, it is hard to tell your friends that they are not performing well or not getting that raise, but hands down it's still worth it.

Like Google, we reward our employees and get them involved in our decision making and product development. We encourage developers to propose features, etc. through contests. It shows me which developers have vision and creativity. Bringing dev out of the “dev pit” is important. In our company, we keep development involved with the rest of the company.

"We need to talk…"

The downside of employees: Firing, reviews, interventions, drama, employer mistakes, employees leave. What fun. Often the star players are the ones who are most afraid of being let go. Reviews are difficult. Because we're friends, sometimes we wait too long to mention a problem. So we try to intervene early. There is always drama. It's part of the community. I don't distinguish much between work friendships and personal friendships. Often we have reassignments that move friends around, make them manage each other,  and that can be tough.

Q: I prefer to keep a distance from my coworkers to avoid these kinds of problems.

A: Yes, there is something to that. We are editing what we are saying to our friends if we are in a reporting relationship.

Q: I had a lot of friends reporting to me, and I kept a little bit of distance. But they also kind of unfriended me once I became their boss. I think a lot of people don't want to be friends with their bosses.

A: Well, we can be friends, but we don't have to be. I'm not friends with everyone on my staff. If you promote the right person, they can successfully be the boss of their friends.

If you make a mistake, then you have to fix it. We've moved people around for the wrong reasons. Sometimes an employee wants to leave–so you're hurt, and you don't have a backup. One mistake I made early on is keeping people that should have been allowed to leave. We try to distinguish ourselves by focusing on how we are growing our own business, rather than spending someone else's money. Now that we are large enough, we have more backup available when people leave–so we can focus more on what's best for the individual.

Q: Is the culture coming from top down?

A: It comes from the middle–you can't really steer that. New people bring subtle changes. What's important is maintaining an environment were people respect each other. From the top down, we keep the company vision clear and maintain internal communication. It's true our original eight have a little different vision than everyone else. They feel like the core, and it can go too far if they feel like they have too much ownership.

Q: Sounds scrummy and agile–but as if you've spread that throughout the company.

A: We took agile ideas that we liked, but we are not true agile. The sales team has a stand-up every morning like the developers.

Q: What if you have pockets of people making the culture in each department different. How do you instill the business vision across the departments and defeat the tunnel vision that develops in a larger organization. And sometimes the senior management doesn't walk the talk.

A: We did have problems as we differentiated into departments. We have minicultures now. Senior management must tie everyone together. We must talk to different groups in their own dialects. I will spend a lot of time hanging out with the various departments. So I can get them on the same continuum.

There are plenty of businesses with terrible upper management. I would go the route of caring about my employees any day of the week.

Q: Collaboration between departments really needs buy-in from the top. Otherwise people won't listen.

A: If you can make that kind of company, that will make you strong.

Q: What kind of orientation do you do for new hires? What retention tactics are best and worst?

A: Dumping more money doesn't work as well as you might think. For orientation, we have a week-long core orientation for everyone. You learn about our values, our core customers, etc. Support people get more training. We don't have tier-1 support–it's all tier 3. The best retention tactics are listening to employees, being their friend, being always available for work stuff and even non-work stuff.

Q: How do you reinforce your core values?

A: All managers go and define values with their departments. Such as: we are approachable, we admit mistakes, we don't fight with our customers. We talk about our values. We work with the local community (schools, etc.). We truly act on our values and notice when we go astray.

Q: How do you find employees?

A: A lot of friends referring friends. Otherwise we just post on craigslist, casting a wide net. PHP developers are really hard to find these days. PHP is easy to get into, so we get people like graphic designers who got into it.  We do a whiteboard test and learn about how the person thinks.

Q: When people leave, do you use them as consultants after, with knowledge retention bonuses?

A: That’s brilliant idea. I like it.

Q: How do you tell the boss his idea is stupid?

A: It's different for different people. I try to integrate feedback. I like to have a one-to-one conversation to discuss it, rather than making announcements about bad ideas. Remember that people do compromises, and sometimes you don't have enough information to judge why someone is taking a certain direction. Personality is important. You have to use people in a way that supports the whole. A good manager can recognize specific strengths, their own weaknesses, and take in feedback and delegate without being nervous. I always listen to people who are sticking up for the customer, who are being the voice of the customer.

Q: Do you take criticism personally?

A: Yes. But I accept that someone has a particular view and their heart is with the customer. If you shoot the person down, you will weaken the company. I try to listen to every idea and critique. Some are hard to stomach, of course.

Q: There are lots of roles at companies–builder, visionary, etc. People are doing research about this stuff. But all these roles need each other. Does anyone share roles?

A: It makes me sad when those renaissance people become unhappy as roles get specialized. I miss that a bit. It's a part of the culture of the tiny company that's gone. The strength of these people is to pull all those pieces together. But now that we have teams, if they are healthy units, they will create that kind of interoperability.

Q: You don't like venture capital?
A: I'm wary of VC because I think a good idea shouldn't need VC. Very cool–but bad–ideas tend to get VC capital. At least for software.

Q: Aggregate Knowledge is the Google of advertising. Heard of it? There is really big data mining stuff happening in silicon valley now. I can't find anything around here.

A: That is a slightly higher level of investment. There are some local aggregating companies here. The economy is like an ecosystem here.

Q: How are you going to grow from here?

A: We are $5.6 million this year. 40 employees, up to 55 by end of 2011. There's a deep need for our product. Companies need to collect data to let them see. We grow as an organism. Adding new features doesn't necessarily make us better, so we will probably offer new kinds of products. We have grown through word of mouth almost exclusively. We engage with conversations in the social media space, not to advertise, but just to engage.  The stuff we write is for the person we are writing to. We try to be honest and unbiased.

Q: What are your key metrics?

A: We hired a SEO firm, we look at website traffic, conversions of visitors to customers, conversion rate per trial, length of time it takes to answer a support ticket, how often someone gets stuck in voice mail, average wait time in the queue. I set goals each month for each department.

Q: How do you avoid steamrolling over people, if that is your tendency?

A: Probably empathy is the biggest thing that can put a hold on you. I don't want to hurt anyone. That can help you for tactfully diverting the steamroller so no one gets squished.

Q: What platforms are you looking at? mobile, billboards?
A: There is a mobile version of our application. This year we moved to a platform stance. We rewrote our API. We get great ideas from our customer base. So we have a framework for other people to expand our product. So some other developer wraps something useful around our product, like allowing it to work off line, and that's good for our customers. Even though we don't make money from that wrapper. 

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