Beyond ping-pong tables: how to dodge clichés and build a team you love
by Aytekin Tank
March 12, 2018
It was a Thursday afternoon in May.
Our team had just cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge. We started at Fisherman’s Wharf, then cruised through Presidio National Park and across to Vista Point.
Still catching my breath, I got off my bike and gaped at San Francisco and East Bay in the distance. Tourists were snapping selfies, while everyone high-fived for finishing the ride.
I couldn’t stop smiling. Watching my team laugh and gently tease each other was honestly better than stunning view below.
When I started JotForm 12 years ago, it was just me and a plan to create simple web forms. I never imagined we’d grow to employ 100 people on two continents and serve 3.2 million global users.
That’s why our cycling day in San Francisco felt so meaningful. Having fun and enjoying time together is essential to our culture.
I know that “corporate culture” can be a cliché — especially in the hard-driving startup world.
Some companies equip the office with beer and ping-pong tables and call it culture. Other Silicon Valley giants offer over-the-top perks with the caveat that employees will practically live at their desks.
Spending an afternoon on wheels is great, but for us, it’s not the point. We do our best to work in a way that’s sane, open and friendly. We’re not perfect, but we try to keep normal hours and treat each other with deep respect.
That’s culture — and if you’re building a startup or even a team of two, please know that you can nurture a kind and supportive environment.
I believe the secret lies in slow growth.
Many VC-backed companies receive funding and set off on a massive hiring spree. Once the runway gets short, they’re forced to start laying people off.
I empathize with this situation. If you’ve ever had to fire someone, you know that it’s really hard for everyone.
If you bootstrap your startup, that slow, careful growth can prevent big spikes and drops in your team.
I have a rule that we don’t hire someone unless we have their entire first-year salary in the bank. I followed this rule when JotForm had just one employee and we still adhere to it now.
Growing gradually also enables you to learn what you truly value.
I always remember how Enron (the disgraced former Texas energy company) had four stated values: respect, integrity, communication and excellence. That “official” culture didn’t save the company from a massive bankruptcy and auditing scandal that sent several top execs to prison.
As your company evolves, you can nurture the parts that feel authentic, like an undercurrent of humour or cultivating side projects. You’ll know what’s true (and valuable) and what you want to improve.
Building culture can feel effortless when your team is small, but many founders find that it gets tougher when you bring more people into the fold.
New offices or locations can also add complexity. That’s when your efforts need to become more intentional — and often more creative.
For the first five years, JotForm had just four employees. It was easy to collaborate and brainstorm. We all worked on the same projects, we ate lunch together, and we went on fun team vacations and retreats.
In our sixth year, we grew to 15, then 28 employees the following year. It was great news for the business, but internally, we were struggling.
Productivity hit an all-time low. Communication suffered. We shared an office, but everyone was tackling different projects.
We had lost our sense of community and collaboration. For the first time ever, I didn’t feel excited to come to work each day.
That’s when I decided to split everyone into small, cross-functional teams of 4–5 people. Each group was empowered to work with flexibility and independence — almost like a little company. We gave also gave each team a dedicated office space.
The results were dramatic. By returning to our lean, collaborative roots (despite a growing headcount), everyone was happier. Even the product improved.
We also instituted Friday demo days. These informal show-and-tell sessions ensure that each team stays on track. They keep us all connected and motivated.
Growing slowly enables you to experiment — not only with your products, but with your office culture.
It’s not an exact science. We’re all human, and it can take some time to find the sweet spot.
Don’t rush, listen to your employees, and think about the moments when your team is working in harmony. Then, apply what you learn and keep testing.
Culture emerges in the broad strokes, like team structure and transparency. It’s also shared through actions.
For example, if you claim to promote work/life balance, but you stay until 11 pm every night, you’re sending mixed messages. The same goes for work environments.
We all need light, fresh air, space, and places for collaboration and privacy. We’re physical creatures who don’t thrive when we’re crammed into an airless box.
I realize that space can be costly and I don’t share this advice lightly, but refreshed, happy and well-equipped employees will do better work — and your office will be a much better place to spend the day.
At JotForm, we try to walk our cultural talk. We believe a beautiful work space is important.
We give people powerful computers, a fast internet connection, and anything else they need to do their jobs, whether that’s a drawing tool or a course enrollment.
Employees have big desks and freedom to work in a way that maximizes their own productivity. We encourage people to take vacations and we ALL keep normal work hours.
Launch weeks are the exception, but that only happens once a year. When we launched JotForm Cards last month, we held parties in both Ankara and San Francisco.
It was a fun way to celebrate a year of hard work, but also to connect with our user community.
Meeting and talking to real customers is another big part of our culture, so we try to give our employees the chance to mingle with the people who actually use what they build.
It’s rewarding — and it reminds us all why we’re going to work every day.
Ah yes, hiring.
If you’re a founder or an entrepreneur with even one employee you know how challenging (and important) it can be to attract great people.
You want smart, skilled employees. Like the Norwegian Olympic team, you probably have a “no jerks” policy, too. But it’s not always easy to know how a candidate will gel with your team.
Clarifying your ideal “cultural fit” can help. It’s not foolproof, but spend some time exploring what your strongest teams have in common.
Try to isolate the internal and external qualities of people who consistently drive your business forward. Study your own culture and break down the most successful elements.
If you’re still too small for this exercise, look at products and companies you admire. Read about their journeys and try to learn how they operate.
For example, I’ve noticed that employees who have (even very small) side projects are often standout team members. It shows that they’re excited about our industry, or even about stretching their own skills and creativity.
Given our small team structure, we also need people who can collaborate. Anyone who wants to work in a silo, take personal credit for every small task, or who can’t communicate well is not suited to our office culture.
Every business is different. That’s both an opportunity and a challenge.
After 12 years of growth and change (and a whole lot of mistakes), I’ve learned that culture needs to be intentional.
Like any relationship, it has to be nurtured. It will change and evolve, so it helps to stay open. Be flexible. But also, understand what matters most deeply.
Don’t compromise anything that’s truly essential to your business or your values.
With time, energy and experimentation, you can build a team that makes you feel incredibly proud – both when deadlines are looming and when you’re cruising the Bay Area on a bike.
by Aytekin Tank | January 14, 2019