The Intersection of Technology, Communication, and Culture at Pure Adapt

Yesterday I gave an abbreviated version of my “Entrepreneurship as a Career Choice” talk to the students at James Madison University. We then had a discussion about the pros and cons of starting your own business out of college, and then a brief Q&A. What made it different than the past talks was that I gave it virtually over Skype. I wasn’t sure how it would go, but it went pretty well. The webcam on their end was good enough for me to almost feel like I was standing up in front of the class like I’m used to. The hardest part for me was hearing the reverb of my voice as it went through the speaker system a few seconds later. That took some getting used to…much like speaking into a microphone does. All in all though, I was thoroughly impressed with the students in the class. They all asked great questions and were genuinely intrigued by the idea of starting their own business after college.

I also thought that this was a pretty creative use of Skype that Prof. Wales came up with. He would literally spin turn the webcam towards whomever was talking, acting as my “virtual head”. It certainly wasn’t as good as being there in person, but it was pretty close.

All of this got me to thinking about the larger role of technology in our company and how Skype has enabled us to improve the way that we communicate. Up until a few months ago this post I wrote back in 2009 entitled How We Communicate was largely still true. We’d meet every Monday, but otherwise we were largely on our own to get our work done and then communicate that back to the team, either the following Monday or using our internal micro blog. We’d ask questions via Skype IM, with the occasional phone call or in-person meeting.

And for a long time this worked. Then we hired our first full-time employee, hired Todd to run our Ask a Pro blog, signed up a bunch of writers to write on the blog, hired Tim to manage our social media, and had a partner leave the company. All in less than a year, all while we were still growing pretty fast. One of the big cultural changes we had to make was to adjust the way that we communicated if we wanted to keep growing and keep everyone on the same page, which is something I think is really really important to having a happy team.

We started by killing off the micro blog. It just wasn’t working the way we intended any more. One less thing to check and manage.

Secondly, we needed to do a better job communicating amongst ourselves as owners. Unfortunately it didn’t seem too feasible to have more than the one Monday in-person meeting each week. Instead, we’ve started having small impromptu meetings during the week via Skype calls. I picked up this Logitech headset for $30 and the quality is fantastic. It’s amazing how great of a product Skype is. If we want to talk with video, we can do that. If I want to share my screen to demo something, I can do that too. These meetings help us to get quick feedback and then move ahead on a project without having to table it until Monday, which ultimately results in us getting more done faster.

We’ve also begun emailing regular updates to each other if no discussion is necessary. From my end, things like bug fixes and minor programming features don’t need to be discussed, but previously would take time up on Monday’s to explain to everyone. Now we do it over email during the week and leave meetings for things that actually need to be discussed. Previously I’d sometimes not speak to my partners between Monday meetings, now it’s an oddity if a day goes by without some form of communication amongst the group.

It took us a month or two to really get this down. As soon as we did we turned our efforts towards our employees and the larger Pure Adapt team as a whole. We had been doing a bad job of communicating to them, particularly Charlie in the warehouse. Employees take a lot of work, especially in the beginning, and we hadn’t always been putting that work in. It’s not fair to just expect them to know what to do, although I know a lot of companies do that. We spent a lot of time working alongside Charlie to prioritize his work, and then when his work was done put him on useful projects that help grow his skillset and improve our bottom line (as opposed to say, straightening bottles on the shelves, something we’d have him do during downtime in the past). The combination of his work ethic and our commitment to communication has resulted in some really impressive work. He really “owns” the warehouse now. Without him we wouldn’t have made it through this past month of chaos.

While all of this is still a work in progress, we’ve made amazing strides and I feel a whole lot more confident as we move towards hiring our next full time employee later this year…and then our next employee after that next year, and so on. We’re building a “team” atmosphere into the culture here, something that really energizes me and I’m sure will make our company more attractive to potential hires.

2 comments on The Intersection of Technology, Communication, and Culture at Pure Adapt

  1. Tim says:

    Very interesting post Adam. An angle that I have that is somewhat unique is that I knew you guys as things were just starting to really bloom as a friend and fellow entrepreneur and now as a contractor/employee. Seeing these systems and processes develop over a few short years is quite remarkable. There is no doubt that communication is a must in a modern work place, but the days of daily morning meetings, and hundreds of emails going back and forth are actually detrimental to productivity yet so many companies stick to their traditions and bury people with wasteful communication. I don’t think our system is perfect, sometimes we see short delays between each other and from time to time we are known to get off on a tangent, but as a whole it’s the most efficient system I’ve ever seen. Primarily because it’s not abused, we’re not sending each other chain emails, and jokes from 1998. That’s not to say we are all work and no play, but it seems everyone knows where the lines are, when we can have a little fun and when it’s time to keep our noses down and get it done.

    As you well know I agree entirely with you about Skype, it is a great, simple and highly valuable tool. What most people probably don’t know is I live 750 miles away from “headquarters” and with our use of various software applications it’s as though I’m in an office down the road.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Thanks Tim. You being 750 miles away and being such an advocate for Skype has really helped push us to use it more amongst ourselves.

      I think your point about not abusing the system is a good one. It’s really important to have the right people in place that know when it’s OK to contact someone and when it’s not, and also when to use an interruptive tool (IM, call) vs a passive tool like email. It requires you to have the ability to step back and ask how important something really is, and is it worth disrupting someone else’s work at that moment to get my problem solved. I think everyone on our current team is really good at that, but I have no idea how to necessarily test that with a potential future employee, other than working with them for quite a while (in the beginning there is always going to be a lot more communication). No matter how skilled someone is, if they aren’t good at communicating they likely won’t fit with our company or most other companies.

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