I wrote this post to talk about how we view startup culture at TrueAccord. In a way, it’s also an indirect response to a16z’s post about employee equity. We believe people who worked hard deserve their share, much like investors who put in money do.
Recently we announced to our team that we’re adopting a new policy to let employees who stayed with the company for two years keep their unexercised options for up to 7 years. This is considered very pro-employee (though we think it’s not that extreme) and I want to give context to why we did it – because the move is rooted in our deep beliefs regarding what a startup company should be for its team members.
I started my startup career at FraudSciences (FSC), in March of 2005. It was an amazing ride, ending with a $169m acquisition by PayPal. It gave me a lot – insights, experience, enough cushion to skip a few months of work when I started my next company. Interestingly, though, while being a part of FSC’s success, I never got a good look behind the scenes. I rarely spoke to investors, was not exposed to leadership dynamics, and saw almost none of the sausage making. There was almost no discussion of the “meta” of building a startup. FSC was amazing, but upon starting my own company, I only had what I could learn on my own.
Learning how to Startup together
When we started TrueAccord I had a lot more experience. It helped me and my co-founders align on what we wanted company culture to be like; much as TrueAccord is working to be a force for good in a traditionally problematic industry, we wanted it to be more than a workplace for team members. We wanted it to be a stepping stone, a company that’s not only good to work at but also to be from. One whose team members go on to start their own successful companies, and perpetuate this world view. That seems to be the best way to help our community – train its future leaders, forged in the fire of actual startup making. It also creates incredibly effective team members, committed to the goal not by blind admiration to founders or a cult-like culture but by being actually, tangibly vested in the company building process.
To reach the best learning and vesting environment, we had to overcome three different issues: one, team members often don’t have enough information to understand what’s going on. Two, there’s little to no time to reflect on and re-evaluate strategy outside of a small group of people. Finally, only a small subset of the team typically feels truly vested in the business through meaningful equity ownership.
This is what we did.
The first step to understanding why things happen a certain way is knowing what’s going on. When an organization is opaque, knowledge accumulation starts being equated with power, and it becomes too easy to spread misinformation. We wanted people to know what’s going on. Keeping operations transparent also keeps leadership honest – when you don’t keep secrets, you become a lot more calculated in your decisions. A great example is compensation: while I don’t recommend that team members share what they make, I’m not worried about them doing so because as a leadership team, we stand behind every compensation decision we make. Being transparent doesn’t mean we never make mistakes – but we own them openly with the team, because that makes us stronger.
We adopted radical transparency (though we don’t find it radical): unless it shouldn’t be shared, knowledge is open to all. We share company progress, financials, thoughts about strategy, reasons for various decisions and more. We discuss them openly in all hands meetings and distribute them internally. All team members know what the founders’ share of the company is, how much is in the options pool, what terms investors got, what our terms are with our largest clients and so on.
Transparency has its limitations. We don’t share personal matters, or legal matters outside of what can be shared. We also don’t overshare details about fickle processes like enterprise sales (outside of major milestones) nor do we share notes from every meeting. These are trinkets that less experienced employee mistake for knowledge. Still, everything meaningful is available, and team members are encouraged to ask questions and be informed.
Thinking about work
Once you have information, what do you do with it? It’s not only knowing what’s happening that matters, but also putting it in perspective. What should our strategy be? What are our market conditions? How should we change going forward? These are important questions that are rarely asked outside the executive team.
It’s important to understand: we didn’t adopt holacracy. We didn’t abolish management. We have clear areas of responsibility with accountability and authority owned by the same person or function. That doesn’t mean that we can’t challenge ourselves to recognize our mistakes as a team and get better.
Our group reflection exercises take shape in a few forums:
- A chat channel to discuss industry news and how they influence our industry and company. Anything from changes in the funding environment to how recent case law influences our operations in certain market segments.
- Monthly breakfasts where attendees discuss company strategy and raise pressing issues, and monthly sessions with smaller functional group with open agenda.
- Q&A sessions with the Leadership team, preceded by collecting anonymous questions, so we can raise the most difficult issues the team wants to discuss.
There’s still more work to do here. I’m happy that no question we’ve been asked, even the toughest ones, was surprising. I always feel prepared to answer tough questions because these are the topics my leadership team struggles with on a daily basis. On the other hand, we have to continue learning how to raise strategic concerns as a team and think about work beyond the daily grind. It all starts from leadership teasing out tough questions by challenging themselves in public. What were our biggest mistakes? Why do we continue working in this or that segment? Once that snowball’s big enough, it starts rolling.
Sharing the upside
You don’t need f-you money to start a company, but “ramen profitability” limits talented potential founders with families and responsibilities from working on their ideas. I didn’t “score” anything big from FSC but it allowed my then co founders and me to approach Signifyd and Analyzd with ease of mind, and refuse the first acquisition offer that came our way. We want that for our team members; the feeling that 1) they own enough of the company, right now, for it to matter for them financially and 2) that they get to keep that value. That means two things:
First, we aimed to be generous with option grants. Our founding team has equal holdings and we wanted team members to benefit from the pool as much as possible, too. I estimate that, after the next round, employees could cumulatively own more equity than founders do, and I think it is healthy.
Second, when someone spends time creating value for the company, we don’t want them to leave without it or feel trapped because they need too much money to exercise their options. That’s why the board decided to let anyone who worked at TrueAccord for more than two years have a 7 year exercise window for their vested options (this is the “Pinterest Model”).
We’re still grappling with ownership, control and upside. Maybe there’s a way to distribute upside in hindsight (after a liquidity event) that optimizes taxes, but doesn’t undermine control for the founders while the company is still running. As an investor, I wouldn’t automatically support a structure that allows founders to give out more equity while maintaining their key holder rights in the company. So it gets complicated really quickly, but I think we’re striking the right balance at TrueAccord given the constraints.
Part of creating a new company is setting its culture. I think culture shows in what you do with and for team members, more than massages or unique color schemes. For us at TrueAccord, turning the company building experience into a learning experience that everyone can benefit from, driving a positive change through the way we do things, is a key cultural component. If you like these ideas, feel free to steal them or come join us (we’re careful with our money and hire for very specific positions).
If you’d made decisions that you believe are helping your company deal with these issues effectively – let us know. We’d love to learn from you!