From the startup in 2008 to date, we announced at least 10 unique partnerships between Leverate and other companies. They cost tons and, at times, took all the brainpower and sweat we had. Every single one of these partnerships has failed (channel partners aside).
When I listen to startup founders, I sometimes notice the abuse of the word “partner”, and it reminds me just how unclear we were around the partnerships we took. I’ve heard this word from startup founders to describe what I would otherwise call “client”, “vendor”, “distribution channel”, “an opportunity to get some PR”, “another company that we want to have an integration with because it’s cool” or in the worst case “an established company in the industry who thinks we’re neat but we’re not sure what’s in it for us or them”.
Undefined partnerships are dangerous. And they often come with the promise of some PR, especially in fintech, where banks and consulting companies enjoy setting up accelerators and hanging out with the cool kids (startups). This has been funnily described as the fintech zoo. An executive at a bank or established company may talk to a startup about partnership opportunities that can generate a mention or two in the press, but…
Our first customer service (CS) person in Asia shocked me with a resignation just one week after I landed in Hong Kong. He said it was health related. Damn. We had about 9 clients in China at the time, and he was the only customer service person in the company who could actually speak their language. I promised him that I’ll work on a new recruit the next morning. I tried to paint him a less hectic future, and I truly believed in it. In a short-sighted whim I even offered him a title and a much, much higher pay. He said no thanks. He was so burned out I could smell the smoke. I ended up hiring 2 people to replace him, taking into account our near term growth.
The second CS person quit 5 months later. She said it was family related. Tough luck, I thought- and set out to find the next person. At least I was encouraged by a strong delivery on sales. Hell, Sales Cure All.
When the third CS person quit, I hardly bothered to ask why. I knew it couldn’t be a coincidence- something was wrong with how we built the team. But also I knew that the guy would give me a million Hong Kong Dollars before he tells me why he hated his job. It’s common for people in HK and China to avoid confrontation and try to save their boss from “losing face”. They didn’t seem to notice that I was much closer to losing my mind. All I wanted was for someone to gimme some truth, but I knew I had to search for the reasons elsewhere.
OK, I wasn’t that clueless. I’d been running both Hong Kong and Shanghai for over a year year at that point. Things are always harder away from the HQ, and customer service is a thankless job almost by definition. But I couldn’t explain what was causing such a strong and continuous implosion, while sales and marketing kept growing and delivering.
Nearly desperate, I switched to recruiting mode again. And then I finally started noticing a pattern: many of the people I interviewed in HK & China left other foreign companies under the same circumstances: the company was new to Asia, and the person struggled for a year or less before quitting. When speaking to candidates, they told me everything that our staff who resigned wouldn’t tell me. I listened carefully as they described The China Customer Service Meltdown happening in their previous company and leading them to quit. And I realized that as much as these people seem driven and talented, I run a risk of losing them for the exact same reasons again. I also learned from other friends who run businesses in HK, and especially China, that constant bleeding on customer service is very, very common (in local and foreign companies).
Here’s the dynamic that leads to the China CS Meltdown:
In the previous post, I shared a few notes on internal communication in tech companies. In this post, I’ll take a step back to discuss what types of communication exist in a tech company, highlighting cross-department communication. For each type of communication, I will discuss the tools that can serve you best… and worst.
Here are the kinds of communication that I noticed along the years at Leverate:
Boards = lists that departments maintain so that everyone in the company can check them out. Boards will usually reflect recent work, so their contents will change with time. Examples:
Next releases board– maintained by the product team
Latest sales board– maintained by the sales team
This month’s lead numbers board– maintained by the marketing department
This month’s birthdays board– maintained by the HR team
This year’s holidays in our offices worldwide– maintained by the HR team
Boards can come in different flavors:
Crucial for day-to-day work OR a nice-to-have transparency tool
Designed for internal communication in the department OR designed for communicating to other departments
If you ever worked in a sales team, you’ve most likely seen a board that sales leaders love: the monthly leader board. Nothing invites more motivation and focus than these cold hard numbers on the wall.
When shared cross-department, boards are perhaps the most simple and to-the-point transparency tool that I’ve seen. People love them (when they’re up-to-date, of course), and they create a feeling of accountability among critical departments. I highly encourage founders to introduce a board for product, sales and marketing to reflect releases, sales data and marketing data respectively.
What do we need in a board tool?
Public– anyone can easily check out boards
Collaborative– anyone can create boards, then quickly edit / comment / like items
Good lookin’– it’s nice to add some colors or communicate planning vs. execution with a ‘dashboardy’ feeling
Topics & subscriptions– would be nice if people can subscribe for specific boards (e.g. next releases) and get notified on updates
Interactive– it would be nice to click an item (e.g. a specific planned release) to get more information (the release notes)
Recommended tools for boards:
The board feature in daPulse
A public Google Spreadsheet
Build your own– home-made boards are always an option: in some offices I’ve seen TV screens projecting retention, sales and even revenues data to all employees
The wrong tool: emails
Shouts = casual cross-department announcements. Usually to the entire company. Usually happy. You don’t know exactly when they will come. They’ll stick around for a couple of days and then they will get washed away. Examples for shouts in a tech company are:
An introduction of a new key employee that everybody needs to know, including a picture of them with their dog
An announcement from the CEO about last week’s acquisition
Pictures from the crazy team building night that the marketing department had last week, including that video of the VP Marketing dancing on a bar table that will haunt her forever
An announcement from the VP sales on the epic performance of the sales team during Jan & Feb, including a chart
What do we need in a shout tool?
Notifies everyone, but minimizes spam– shouts are cool, and sometimes you want to announce something to all, but people don’t like getting 12 random emails per week. Better find a tool that minimizes announcements to all, aggregates notifications and lets people choose their topic(s) of interest
Social– anyone should be able shout on any topic, because everyone has something interesting to celebrate every now and then. A good tool will let other people quickly like / comment on the shouts. It’s also nice to see who in the company read the shout
Allows attachments– it’s nice and engaging when shouts come with an inline chart, picture or video
Recommended tools for shouts:
Posts in Facebook at Work, daPulse or Yammer
Emails (not ideal)
The wrong tools: your company wiki, Trello
#3 Knowledge bases
Knowledge base = an evolving collection of articles and media items. Think about a company-wide wiki. Knowledge bases are naturally different from boards and shouts because they contain information that you want to evolve and stay long term.
Examples for knowledge bases in a tech company are:
Six months ago, a friend of mine who worked at a growing 30-people startup approached me to ask what tool we use to communicate between departments at Leverate.
Smart guy, I thought. I will never forget the colorful chaos that broke loose when we scaled from 30 to 140 employees in just two years. A headcount of 30 is an ideal tipping point for internal communication to take new forms.
Communication inside Leverate has evolved quite a bit along the years. We’ve been using a good number of tools to manage departments and share stuff cross-department. These tools include email, phone, boards, Slack, Confluence, Wiki, Yammer, daPulse, Google Docs, TFS, SharePoint, Trello, Facebook at Work and more. Some of these tools were so beautifully designed, that they downright fueled me with insights on leadership and communication. Others stormed into the company for a one-week-stand that everybody hated.