Company Health (Beyond Profit)

Discussions Series, Episode 6: youdo talks about all things company culture


Luke - Charlie, thank you for joining us this week. Tell us a little bit about what you are up to at the moment?

Charlie - Thank you for having me. I work for - I was going say a company but it's not technically a company - an organisation called Toucan Protocol where I run business development and partnerships. Toucan is being set up as a DAO (a decentralised autonomous organisation). And the purpose is to tokenize carbon credits, which is creating digital twins of carbon credits and bringing them onto a blockchain.

Luke - So DAO’s came in the interview we did with Gulliver Smithers in our last discussion. Could you tell us a little bit more about DAOs particularly from this perspective of how they would differ from an ordinary company? And what some of those differences might look like in practice to the people who belong to a DAO?

Charlie - To be honest I'm not an expert. DAOs go hand in hand with the crypto and blockchain space largely because of the way that decisions are made and how the organisation is structured. In a DAO you can write your rules for how the governance of that organisation works. There are those who think that this is a far more sophisticated way of governing an organisation. In practice it’s about how to organise people to achieve certain ends or means or goals. We are remote only teams, we don't have an office and we have a fairly flat organisational structure. We do have a CEO and a leadership team, but it's more expected that everybody will have clearly defined goals and then they act autonomously to go and achieve those goals thereby giving them the sort of freedom and responsibility to be their own entrepreneurs. The thinking behind that is to get people to be more motivated to go and get the best out of themselves and be ready to go and achieve their goals. And therefore to become a better organisation as a whole. Whether or not that works in reality is a very different thing!

Luke - I can see how having that kind of autonomy would enable someone to be their best selves and to produce their best work. But I can also see that it probably only works for a very particular type of person because you're losing a lot of the social aspects that go along with being part of a more traditional company and that a lot of people really enjoy. What's your take on that?

Charlie - There’s definitely a bit of a trade off there. I'm sitting here at home in the middle of lunch and I haven't seen a human being for about 48 hours! And it’s great that I can work from home but it definitely makes things a little bit tougher in terms of company culture. As an organisation our whole team gets together twice a year. We have this retreat coming up at the end of next month. It's for four days and we've just discussed how much of it should be about work. And we concluded not much! We speak to each other in a work situation all day every day via zoom or whatever and the point of the retreat is that it’s IRL.

Luke - So that's really interesting. For the retreat, it seems to me that you're basically going to try to concentrate a year's worth of having a cup of coffee, popping out for a walk, having lunch, going out to the pub etc. into four days! It'd be really interesting to see whether doing that in a more concentrated fashion - really supercharging the developing relationships / building connections between colleagues - works better than day by day so to speak. This leads on to my next question - you've worked at very large companies, you've set up companies yourself and now you're now working at a DAO. Each one of these is very, very different in terms of how people work together and how their relationships grow. What are your observations about the differences and how they felt and which ones you preferred? And maybe what some of the good things of each one are and what some of the bad things are?

Charlie - When I joined JP Morgan I think we had more than 250,000 people around the world. Everyone knows that American investment banks are tough places to be, so it takes a certain type of person to want to go to a place like that. I loved it there. I had a great time and I wouldn't change that at all. I had a great job and made way more money than I would have ever have made anywhere else at that stage of my career, which is important because it set me up to be more financially secure and to be able to go and dig around startups.

But in terms of the culture, well it’s very hard to have a culture when you’ve got 250,000 people. Especially when they're very focused on diversity, and bringing in lots of people who have different attitudes. So how do you have a culture when everybody's supposed to be different, right? But they create a culture around expectations, around what you're supposed to do, and how you interact with clients and giving them a certain level of service and all this sort of stuff. And they're like, ‘you’re the best of the best of the best’ And they literally drilled that into your heads at JPMorgan. On your first week there, you get sent to New York for two months. When I went through customs and they say ‘Why are you in America’, I said ‘I'm here for work’. And they said ‘With who”, and I said JP Morgan and the guy said ‘Are you here for the training programme’? How does the guy at Customs know that?! That’s how big an organisation it is.

So that's one type of culture. At the other end of the spectrum, you start as a one man band, so there's zero culture. And then you have to create a sense of culture. This is something I spent a lot of time on at Stowga (my second startup). I wanted to create a culture where you can get the best out of people. I looked at how to incentivize people. I tried to pay people more than they were expecting, which I think is a really important thing at a startup. I worked briefly at Trillion Fund before Stowga and they paid me less, and said ‘we'll give you a pay rise after three months when we get this funding’ and then they never did. And then I was sat on a salary, which is about a third of what I thought I should be. So my attitude was that I'm not going to walk into work early and stay late if I'm not being paid to. You need to pay people properly, and incentivize them.

Also, really importantly, do not micromanage people. Allow them to do what they want. I felt like the job as the CEO was to super-well define where we want to go, but not define at all how you get there. There’s this VC concept called the startup maze. A maze has an entry point and an exit point. So the exit point is where you want to get to, but within the maze there are going to be loads of wrong turns, like blockers, and you have to work around them to find the exit. And it's a race to get to the exit point quicker than your competition, and also before you run out of money. And therefore, the way to get there quickest is by running faster. So you need a team that is high-performing, but also self-aware enough to realise that they are going down the wrong route, and to not be afraid to reverse and turn around and just scrap a load of work that they've already done. It comes down to creating a culture of 'speed as a weapon' and a culture of ‘don't be afraid to fail’. We performed best and did well at Stowga when we were living those values. When we started to get hardcore investors in who wanted us to write long, detailed business plans, that was the moment we started to go wrong.

Luke - You’re clearly a fan of autonomy. Do you think that autonomy as a benefit, or as a working principle, is something that suits everyone?

Charlie - I don't think so. I think it's something that you see a lot in startups, but I think that's also because startups attract a certain type of person who want to go and do something that's slightly different and break rules and push the boundaries etc. I think they are the minority. Most people work in jobs where they just like to be told what to do. And they just go and do their jobs. Within a corporate organisation, like a drinks company or clothing manufacturer or something like that, you don't really want that much autonomy. You want your employees to go and do their job and it’s quite structured and everyone has annual goals or OKRs or whatever. And the company says this is what your job is, go and do it and I don’t want to hear anything until you've done it!

Luke - Last question, if somebody said to you, I want to create a really amazing company culture, you know, what do I need to do aside from make sure that everybody is paid properly and knows what their job is? What else would you tell them?

Charlie - Hmmm. I'd focus on fun. I'm very proud of the fact that not one person ever left Stowga. We had to make a couple of people redundant, but nobody left out a choice, which is a good signal. And I think that's because we made it a fun place to work. And I've been told that by several of the employees I still keep in touch with now, several years after the whole thing finished.

Luke - Great advice! Thanks Charlie.