A No-Nonsense Working Culture
When I was a dreamy wantrepreneur, my idea of running a startup involved foosball tables, slides, unlimited book budgets, and frequent company parties. However, when Joshua and I actually started TalkJS, we were too focused on getting to product-market fit to worry about anything like that. We were worrying about our customers and about the product, not about foosball tables. At the time, I felt that this was a temporary ordeal. We’d get to foosball levels of awesomeness soon enough.
As time went on, however, we realized that foosball tables are a terrible predictor for a fulfilling job. If the job is the most fun when you’re not working, you’ve got a pretty big problem. Shouldn’t we instead ensure that the actual job is fun?
What makes for a fun job? Opinions vary, but I think it’s agency and impact. Agency means that your colleagues trust you to individually do your best work. It means not being told what to do, nor when to do it. It means working when you want to, and taking your kid to the doctor when you need to. And it means freely discussing designs with colleagues, with mutual respect and without pressure or politics. Impact means that the work you do directly improves the lives of our customers, and therefore makes the company better.
We realized that company-branded mugs, t-shirts, mousemats, or wall art aren’t really going to contribute much to your agency or your impact. If you’re not motivated to do your best work for TalkJS unless you’re wearing a t-shirt with the logo on it, then your job is likely simply not exciting enough. As founders, we should focus our energies on addressing that, not on sending you t-shirts.
That’s not to say that we should never send you a t-shirt, but it’s pretty low on our prio list.
Less process, less distraction
I think that most companies, as they grow, get more “stuff.” More processes, more sponsored gym memberships, more organic juices, more management, and more company laptops. At TalkJS, like most companies, we started with pretty little stuff. But so far, we only got less of it.
For example, we started out doing Scrum. But the sprint cadence made us take a single hard “do we release or not?” decision every two weeks, and it made no sense. Why not just ship a feature when it’s done? So we ditched the idea of sprints and switched to Kanban. Then we noticed that our Trello kanban board went outdated all the time, but it stopped nobody from shipping. So we cut that out too. Daily standups were interrupting half the team’s flow, so we cut those out too. We kept cutting things out, and by now, we’re a company with no deadlines, no obligatory meetings, no fixed working hours, and no bosses giving you tasks.
This works because, and only because, the entire company consists of people who move the fastest when they’re not held back by process. People who don’t need to be told what’s the most important thing to do right now (and who know to ask if they’re not sure). People who prefer to dive deep and emerge victorious, people who know how little sense it makes to try to split a performance problem into estimated “story point” tasks on sticky notes. People who know how to scope work down into small chunks, so we ship fast increments whenever we can.
Surely, at ten people, we’re still a small company. We’ll probably get a little more “stuff” as we grow further. But we’ll keep it down to the minimum.
Years ago, I worked at a software agency, which had a free book budget, an education budget, and a computer budget. I thought it was a fantastic perk – unlimited books! A free computer! Yay! But on a company outing, I had a conversation with a manager, and I shared some idea for another perk that I thought would be just swell. I forgot what the perk was, but I was pretty enthusiastic about it until he asked me if I would be willing to trade salary for it. Of course, I said “no.” Wouldn’t you? That’s when I realized that all these perks could’ve just been money that I could freely spend on anything, instead of a predetermined list of things.
It’s none of our business to tell you how you spend your life. I used to like the idea of company-sponsored gym memberships until I realized that the money could just be salary instead. I’ll choose what I spend my own money on, thank you very much. If I want to spend it all on booze and hamburgers and World of Warcraft swords, it’s really not my boss’s right to tell me to go do a workout instead. There’s an argument that a healthy workforce makes for a productive workforce, but I think it’s just patronizing.
Like the processes, we took this one pretty far. At TalkJS, you won’t get a company computer. After all, you have a computer already don’t you? And you have it set up exactly the way you like. Why would we stop you from using that for work? It makes no sense, you have the perfect machine already. Wanna work from your sofa? Go ahead. Wanna work from a co-working space? Go ahead as well. Our assumption is that we pay you well, which lets you make your own choices about all this.
The company paying for your desk feels nice, but if you could pick a cheaper desk that’s just as good and pocket the difference, wouldn’t you do it? That’s what it’s like at TalkJS.
Minimalism, not nihilism
All in all, this has turned TalkJS into a pretty minimalist company when you look at it from the outside. We’ve been fully remote from the start, and we’re really just a bunch of people behind computers spread across Europe and Africa. It’s hard to take a photo of TalkJS, the company.
But this minimalism towards perks and processes opens up a lot of mental space for doing real work, work that’s fun, work that matters. It’s minimalism, not nihilism: we don’t do all that “stuff stuff”, so we can do other, better stuff instead.
We make a technical product for technical people, which makes it easy for us to empathize with our customers. This helps us stay honest with ourselves. It helps us make sure that everything we do helps our customers ship the perfect chat feature, as fast as possible. The best code is a feature that customers are actually waiting for, built in a way that makes sense. The best marketing is content that helps people figure out what’s best for them.
By de-emphasizing perks and processes, we create mental space for doing great and fulfilling work.
Not that easy
Writing all this down makes me feel like we got it all figured out, but really, we don’t. Some of our decisions happened pretty naturally, such as our decision to go all-remote from the start. But a lot of them took some thought. For many years I was set in the idea that “great employer = branded t-shirts and book budgets.” I just thought that we didn’t do it yet because we couldn’t afford it yet, small, scrappy startup, right? But then revenue grew, and when we could afford it, we decided to raise salaries instead. It took me a while to grok why that’s the better choice.
In a way, I’m writing this post mostly for myself: it’s been hard for me to explain exactly why I think TalkJS is a great place to work. It’s easier to make attractive photos of fancy office buildings with shiny light-emitting company logos and happy people wearing official company merch pointing at big monitors. I’m not sure that a screenshot of our single weekly company-wide Zoom call captures the same feeling. (Of course, it’s optional, and it lasts about 20 minutes).
But in the end, a pretty photo on the “careers” page touches you once. The freedom and trust to do your best work every day touches you all the time. I think we’re making the right call, and I’m curious what you think.