As I’m pondering more on the Basecamp saga, I see that despite me paying so much attention to all of their advice of running a business all these years, there’s one very important thing I did differently. As far as I understand, at Basecamp both David and Jason make all the important decisions. At Nozbe I don’t make these decisions alone - we have a “Braintrust”, or actually two of them. Let me explain:
If you own the company, do you also have to rule it completely?
You could say, the buck at Nozbe stops with me. And I definitely take the blame for everything. Just like Jason and David (and minority shareholder Jeff Bezos) own 100% of Basecamp, I own 100% of Nozbe. I have no official business partner, no co-founder, no board of directors, no outside investors. I own it all so I should rule it all, right?
Well, in theory I could, but it’s not the type of company I want to run.
Derek Sivers in his book, Anything You Want wrote that when you’re building your company, you have a chance to create your own perfect world. Your personal unicorn-land. So the company you build is a reflection of yourself, of how you want to work. You can create a world you love.
The moment I decided to stop calling all the shots…
Apparently Jason and David built a company where they decide on the most important decisions. This rule has its advantages - you move faster, you innovate quicker - but also has traps - like if you have a blind spot, you can make a decision, that seems reasonable, but has catastrophic consequences and makes 30% of your workforce leave you. As John Siracusa explains it very well in the latest episode of ATP.
Believe me, I’ve been there, too. 5 years ago I made a rush decision, which wasn’t really incorrect. As just as the decision were, my execution of it made a big damage to the company morale. It took me more than half a year to regain Nozbe team’s trust. Luckily nobody left. I’d like to believe that I earned enough benefit of a doubt that my team wanted to give me a second chance. But who knows, maybe I was just lucky.
I knew I didn’t want to suffer a similar situation again, but I didn’t know how I could have avoided this.
Then someone made me get it.
The real turning point for me happened when Iwona, head of Customer Support at Nozbe, called me and told me this:
“Michael, you made this decision, and you as the owner of the company you can, of course, make such decisions. But then again, why are you calling me your “VP” or “Director” if I feel I have no true agency in this company. You make a decision yourself without consulting with me or anyone else. Why you need me as your director in the first place then?”
Iwona was right. Yes, I own the company, but I also decided to hire brilliant people to help me run it. So I should have a way to turn to them whenever I need to make a tough decision. So we changed things around.
“Braintrust”, or “small groups of smart people”
I describe our setup in detail in the Chapter 8 of my #NoOffice book - “Fight, argue and commit” but the gist of it is this:
I don’t make tough decisions myself, anymore.
We run the company similar to the legendary King Arthur’s round table. If me, or any director in the company wants to make a tough decision, they have to sell it to the directors group. We then debate it, we argue, we vote and if it goes through, we all commit to that decision and strategize on how to implement it. Again, please read the details in my book.
The same applies to Nozbe product design decisions - we have a second group of smart people who decide how new features will be implemented. And which new features make sense.
And I can tell you, very often my great ideas are completely trashed in those meetings.
But that’s good.
This way I have a fallback. In the worst-case scenario I make a fool of myself only in front of people I trust and they have the agency to tell me frankly if they love my idea or not, or why not. And nobody gets fired for speaking up. Nobody loses respect for having a stupid idea. We are free to try new ideas, even if they sound ridiculous at first.
Diversity is key. As much as you can, make the group diverse!
It’s important to make the “Braintrust” as diverse as possible. As a very homogenous Polish-based company, we’ve got still a long way to go, but to give you an idea, in the directors group we’ve got:
- my father, who’s a seasoned entrepreneur and is in late sixties - he’s in charge of finance.
- Iwona, who I mentioned above (and who you can see on the photo, on one of our Nozbe reunions - she’s a woman my age
- Tomasz, CTO of Nozbe, my first employee, who’s younger and much smarter than me, and his much more rational and always calms me down, when I have crazy and emotional ideas.
- Rafal, VP of Product, No Office FM co-host, who’s as enthusiastic as me, but has much more empathy.
- Radek, VP of Engineering, The Podcast FM co-host, who’s much younger than me and brings a millennial point of view. He is not afraid to challenge me, as he did so many times on air as we recorded 200+ episodes of our podcast.
Nobody’s perfect. Not even the business owner!
I’m not writing this to say my way of running a company is better than that of Basecamp’s. It’s just different. I just realized I had my flaws, my blind spots, my emotions and I wanted to create a mechanism where these issues of mine will not get the better of me.
And yes, even though it’s tough for me to admit it, I have my ego, just like everyone else. I try to contain it, but it’s not always easy.
That’s why having these two groups - one responsible for all the important business decisions, and the other for product design decisions, keeps me in check and doesn’t let me do something really truly stupid in front of the entire world.
But yes, I regularly make a fool of myself in front of these people. But that’s OK, at least I get to entertain them :-)
Hope this post clears things out and to really understand how it’s all structured in my company, feel free to read the 8th chapter of my free book - #NoOffice.