Here are some of my thoughts on joining a small team, especially a startup, and some practical ideas on how I believe you can make yourself immensely valuable as an individual.
The advice I’ll share is from personal experience of working in and leading small teams. Today, I look after the product and engineering teams at Akkroo, a London based startup.
For context, I'd classify myself as a creative at heart. I studied Industrial Design (designing physical products) at university, whilst following a freelance career in web design and development. Over time my web design customer base grew, and I started to employ designers and developers, and eventually established a web development and branding studio for premium brands.
That business grew to four people, and then one day I realised that I’d been working in the web for nearly 10 years.
I felt I wanted a new challenge, so sold my agency and went into business with some friends. We co-founded Akkroo around four years ago. Right now, we are a team of 27 spread over the UK and USA.
The advice I want to share here is from my personal experience of seeing how people really add value inside small teams.
I believe when you are able to add an incredible amount of value to your own organisation or team, you will naturally increase your own value as an individual, which ultimately is beneficial to your own personal and career development.
What I share here should be useful for anyone who works inside a small team — or a startup - whether you are a designer, a developer, a manager of people, or perhaps even a future founder of your own company. This is a simple list of ideas that can help to make you into a more desirable and valuable member of any small team.
“Don’t be a jet, be a rocket”
I’d love to tell who I heard say this first, but frustratingly I cannot recall. The gist is this: a jet is fast and powerful, but leaves little evidence of it's journey behind, whereas a rocket leaves a trail that clearly shows the path it made.
As an individual working in a team you add the greatest value when you leave a path behind you that others can follow. When you do this, much like the rocket, others will benefit from what you create. By contrast, a jet is also powerful and fast, but it does not leave any real long standing trace of itself which allow others to learn where it has already travelled.
What happens when you are not deliberate about how you add value
When I was a kid, after school I used to go to my grandmother’s house with my two sisters, and we would prepare a dessert called apple crumble. This is one of my favourite things. It’s made of butter, apples, sugar, flour and magic. It's simply fantastic.
My grandmother had lived through the war and was loathed to throw things away or generate waste, however, she could cook a great apple crumble.
On one occasion, my sister and I were helping her to making our favourite dessert. I’d prepared the apples, my grandmother asked my sister to pass the sugar, which she did, and we mixed it with the flour and butter and made the crumble. Perfect.
We popped it in the oven, and twenty minutes later we sat down to tuck in.
I took a very big mouthful...
It was not good.
In fact, it was really awful.
It was incredibly salty.
It turns out my sister had passed my grandmother the salt, not the sugar. Urgh.
If that had been the end, it would have been bad enough. However, my grandmother being the lady she was and not the sort of person who ever let anything go to waste, made us eat every last spoonful of the salty apple dessert.
I still feel sick thinking about it today.
So what is the lesson here?
Well, when you’re in a small team or startup, like with our salty apple crumble, you pretty much always have to eat what you make - so you want to avoid that and make it taste good.
Much like with the salty apple crumble, if you don’t pay attention to getting the ingredients right, you will almost certainly come to regret the experience.
So the method that I share below is about making sure you take care to always include the right ingredients when making things to ensure you and others always enjoy the results of your work. This is how you can generate real value as an individual.
Applying this at Akkroo
I’m going to share an an example of how I go about applying this idea at Akkroo. First, let me share a little more information about our business and team.
Akkroo helps businesses capture customer details (event qualified leads, or 'EQLs') when they exhibit at events. We’re a SaaS software company, growing quickly, and we work with brands including Aston Martin, IBM, Vogue and Sony.
Just over twelve months ago, I met for coffee with Sunil who was CTO of Buffer at the time. Buffer are a remote company famous for transparency. They were about 90 people at the time, and he explained to me some of the challenges they were facing as a growing team.
One challenge had been that when new team members started at Buffer, it had become harder and harder over time to ensure that they were able to consistently get up and running quickly, learn the intricacies of their role and absorb the cultural information which had once been easier to distribute.
He talked me through their new process which they were just starting to try out. It consisted of assigning every new starter at Buffer three on-boarding buddies - a Role Buddy to assist with the task of getting up and running and understand their work responsibilities, a Culture Buddy who would assist with understanding the business values and integrating into the team, and finally a Leader Buddy who would oversee the whole process and keep it orderly.
I loved this idea. We at Akkroo were only very small by comparison — a team of only 10 at the time — and we’re not a remote company either, but I could see how these techniques could provide a really great tight experience for our new starters.
What is most important is that I’d spotted an opportunity to add great value to the organisation, by introducing something new and filling a gap we hadn't really thought about before.
Spot the gaps, fill them!
When you are a small startup, often there are significant gaps left between the traditional roles you’d find in a well developed organisation. It means it’s entirely up to you or your colleagues to take the initiative to fill the spaces which no one person owns yet. Being an individual who can identify and fill these gaps is a key part of you being able to add immense value, because it helps the organisation grow beyond the basic, dull, static structure it would be otherwise.
Three steps to adding immense value
Here are three steps I believe anyone can take once you identify one of these gaps to address, and add a great deal of more value inside your team or organisation.
- Envision the best case result
- Apply your team values
- Involve others
I’ll go through each of these steps one by one, then follow with practical examples after.
1. Envision the best case result
When we write code, we generally start by writing a specification in order to know what we're aiming for. However, often when building out or adopting new processes, it's easy to dive right in without taking the time to complete this crucial step.
My suggestion is that it's always worth the time to pause, and think about what would be the best case version of what you could deliver as a solution. There are many, many techniques for coming with a good goals/specifications, but making sure you go through this planning step where you can think about what an awesome end-user experience is going to be the difference between coming up with a baseline, dull result, and something that is truly awesome.
To map out what success looks like, ask yourself "what would be the most incredible, easy experience I could have doing this?" and explore the options from here.
2. Apply your team values
Team culture is the soft stuff that fills the gaps between the hard work done by everyone in your team. Organisation values are a great way of helping to distill that culture into something expressable, which allows you to communicate it to others quickly and easily.
We have five values at Akkroo: make an impact, use judgement, build trust, be curious & innovate, and embrace the journey. These are incredibly important to how we work. When values are a real reflection of culture, they can be an incredibly powerful lever; an style guide for approaching challenges.
Don't just pay lip service to your team's values, act on them. Here is my simple advice; write out and use your company values as acceptance criteria for the work you do.
Use your values as acceptance criteria.
It is possible that your company or team may not have formally defined values yet, or they feel disingenuous. I cannot recommend highly enough going through the process of resolving this. There is a huge amount of information out there on the web about how to go about generating a good list of shared team values, and this quote sums up why it is so important to be deliberate about recording values and trying to define the culture of your team:
“Every company has a culture. The only question is whether or not you decide what it is.”
— Jason Cohen, WP Engine
If you don't work on your culture, and identify shared team values, you are leaving a lot to chance, so it’s a great reason to think about developing values and incorporating them into your daily work.
3. Involve others
The final action is to involve your team. This step adds richness. You have this incredibly powerful and intelligent group of individuals around you, so don’t forget to draw on their collective experience, wisdom and ideas. It’s very easy to get your head down and not think to ask for your colleagues contributions - and forgetting to do this will make the difference between a very limited or very rich end result.
Also when you involve others, you get a greater sense of buy-in from the rest of your team. Those who contribute their own ideas will develop a sense of shared ownership, which will make it far easier to promote and encourage enthusiasm and adoption of your work amongst others.
A worked example at Akkroo
So, how did we apply this in practice? I’m going to go through what I took from Buffer about team mate on on-boarding process that Sunil described, and then step through what we’ve introduced at Akkroo. I’m going to use the example of the on-boarding experience using one of our newest team mates, our designer Sandro, and show you how we used this framework to achieve a high-value result.
Firstly, let's look at my first principle of envision the best case result. The list in the slide below is what I came up with to define what success looks like. This version is not the exhaustive one I produced, however it covers the main desirable outcomes. There are many different frameworks you can use to come up with a great specification, and that choice is yours - the key is to come up with set of goals we are aiming to achieve.
Secondly, apply your team values. I’m going to step through a couple of examples of how we applied each of our five team values.
The on-boarding documents we produce for team mates are like check-lists that are created for every single new starter. These are for the on-boarding team, not the new starter themselves, and it means we cover off all the key stuff for someone with no knowledge of our internal workings very quickly - making an impact. These documents check we’ve setup any accounts they can’t, they know where things are like the toilets, and they have met all the right people. They cover a period of 6 months, but the most intense stuff is week one.
Also for the value of making an impact, we created our shared, centralised team manuals that provide new starters with our individual team principles. In Sandro’s case this is the Product & Engineering Manual, and covers things like how to commit code in the way we like, and our design principles, but from those early prototypes I made, each team now has their own manual.
Using good judgement - it made sense to ensure everything was super-repeatable, so I created a centralised handbook for the on boarding team members, so that new ones can learn the core processes without needing a huge amount of individualised training. Thinking like this from early on meant that bringing new Akkroomates in is really efficient.
This one I love - and it demonstrates our value of be curious & innovate. Using Zapier, Google Spreadsheets and Slack, we’ve setup automatic notifications for the onboarding team to ensure we have a good tight feedback loop. Every Friday each of the on boarding team get a message from the on boarding monkey prompting them for feedback.
We build trust from day one. I encourage every new Akkroomate to share a little about themselves, including a photo, in a 'hello' email to the whole team on their first day meaning that everyone has something to talk to them about. We also provide everyone with a bundle of small gifts and the hardware they need to get started on day one, so they feel well looked after from the get go.
Finally, to deliver embrace the journey, I felt we should organise a whole raft of team conversations really early in their tenure at Akkroo - including a culture and values chat with their culture buddy to ensure they understand how we operate and ask any questions. This provides them with a deeper understanding the mechanics of the business by building their knowledge of the whole company.
The last step is to involve others. These are some examples of things that others contributed to improve my original onboarding process when I explained what I was doing. For example, these welcome cards that everyone gets on day one. This gesture started happening one day because others could see the process I was building, and has been a great example of the rest of the team contributing to a richer experience for the new starter. Also, we seem to have developed a custom of seeing spontaneous bursts of welcome messages inside Slack when new people turn up in the team room for the first time.
To recap the steps I've walked through here, I've repeated my three ideas for adding immense value in a small team:
So in summary - Envisioning the best case result, Applying your team values, and Involving others - all applied in with the result being a richer, sweeter processes. This is all very well in principle, but why does this matter in the first place?
Well, here’s some of the results.
A year ago, we were only 10 people in size, but our retention for team mates overall was only around 50%. We also found 20% of people never made it through the first six months.
One year on, we’re now a much larger team of 25, and the last 15 people who joined us have all been through this onboarding process. The difference is stark, as it stands we now have a 100% retention rate in the last 12 months. I can’t attribute it all down to onboarding, but I do think it’s played a very large part.
And what about those who’ve been through it? Well, this is what Sandro said,
“Onboarding was super useful.
“I would say “friendly challenging”, because there were lots of thing to do and setup, but it was detailed like a friendly tutorial.
“Everyone seemed eager to help too, which was nice.”
Naturally, there’s more work to be done to refine this process we've built, and things will change greatly as we grow, however hopefully you can see the immense new value we were able to add by applying this set of principles when introducing a new process.
As a co-founder and manager, I see this kind of activity happening across Akkroo the whole time, however I wanted to show you in a clear example how I applied these steps in my own work to demonstrate the sort of activity that will make your own manager or team see greater value in your own work.
There are many, many opportunities for any individual to add a great amount of value in a small team. From creating team manuals, to how you do customer development, to how you organise meetings. Everything you ever build, even outside of your core role, is a great opportunity to do so.
And when you add immense value, you personally become more valuable in the eyes of your peers.
When picking an opportunity to develop (and therefore add value to your organisation) take care to choose your ingredients wisely, because if you rush into your work, or are not being deliberate to include the right ingredients, it will very much affect the taste. Create richer results by engaging and leveraging others around you, and apply your team’s cultural values for greater, higher-value outcomes.
If there’s only one thing you take away from all of this, or you can’t remember my three steps, the key advice I would leave you on the subject of becoming insanely valuable, is to try and be deliberate.
Ultimately in a startup or small team, you are going to have to eat what you make, so by being deliberate, you have a much better chance of making sure what you eat will taste really good!
This post is a written version of a talk I first gave to job-hunting developers at the Landing Careers Festival in Lisbon, June 2017.