Late 2020, Matt and I decided we'd start a company together.
We had spent plenty of time talking and thinking about the product we wanted to build, but less so about the kind of company we wanted to build — so we got an Airbnb for a week and spent a bunch of time chatting through just that. We decided to codify some of the things we came up with in a set of company values that we'd use to hire our first couple of employees.
In the past, whenever I'd seen a company talk about their values, I'd often cringe a bit. At best, they'd be statements so generic and universally applicable that they’d lose their impact: be respectful, be honest, and so forth. At worst, they'd be phrased in ways that would make a company sound like a cult and be weaponised into vague catch-alls during performance reviews.
So in writing our own, we tried to follow two principles we’ve learned along the way and deeply believe in:
- Company values should consist of things where other companies might credibly believe the opposite. For example, you'd be hard-pressed to find a company with dishonesty as a stated value. But you can point to plenty of successful companies that value speed and scrappiness, and just as many companies that value precision and thoughtfulness. Great values help you articulate the things you believe make for a great company and great product in your space, rather than the things that might apply to any company, anywhere, including your competitors. In short: they make you, you.
- Company values shouldn’t feel like a statement of the obvious or something already true, but rather feel a bit uncomfortable, stretch you, and prompt the odd look in the mirror. They become meaningful by being tested and challenged, hotly debated, incorrectly applied, refined and improved — over and over again. They're there to help you grow.
I’m sharing the values we came up with below, with some thoughts on why we chose them and how we're doing against them. They're far from perfectly phrased, we live some of these more rigorously than others, and there are a couple that are probably due an update to reflect our evolution as a company. Hopefully you’ll find it interesting.
Without further ado — let’s dive in!
1. Intentionally, proudly small
Every technical, product and process decision should be made so we can stay small. For example, we will not always pick the perfect technology for each problem, and instead optimise for consistency across our stack. Consistency helps us lower the maintenance burden and allow team members to work across more parts of the product with ease.
We believe this because in our market, the level and subtlety of execution is what matters most. Small teams and companies excel at this: everyone knows one another, feedback loops are very fast, there's a minimum of politics, and alignment happens almost automatically.
How’s it going? Very well! We’ve been able to cover a lot of ground and a complex surface area quickly these last 12 months and are able to iterate very quickly. In particular, this value has helped embed a lot of rigour into everything from how we approach technical decisions through to our developer experience.
2. Work hard for simplicity
Customer service is messy, complex, and unpredictable. Our job is to turn that messiness and complexity into something that feels simple, rigorous and elegant. We should never offload this complexity onto customers or advisors, but instead do the hard work to make things simple for them.
We believe this because in operational tooling, it's critical that the fastest way of doing something is also the correct way. Otherwise, you end up with UIs that have a toggle for everything and look like Swiss army knives, manual processes, hacks and unreliable data. Getting to the intersection of fast and correct is neither easy nor obvious and takes constant work.
How’s it going? This is probably one of our most frequently tested values. It’s helped us both make some very good high level product decisions that removed entire categories of problems and concerns, but has at times also been hard to apply practically due to our product still very much being at the MVP stage. Perhaps, as product people, we'll never really be satisfied here — things can always be simpler.
3. Own a problem end to end
We expect everyone to own, discuss and solve user and product problems holistically, rather than only considering them within the confines of our own disciplines and remits. Does this feature solve the right problem? Is it built in the right way? Is the commercial decision we are making the right one? All these questions are for everyone to consider.
We believe this because virtually every engineering decision is a product decision, every design decision is an engineering decision, and so forth. Decisions are interconnected. If you think only within the boundaries of your own comfort zone, you miss the big picture.
How’s it going? The problems we solve require a high degree of domain expertise in each of design, backend and frontend engineering, which means the gravitational pull is always towards fragmentation in our thinking and decision making. We need to work on this area, especially on the engineering side where we need to start building and thinking more full-stack.
4. Build a business, not a utopia
Our business has not yet earned the right to exist. To exist long-term, we need to make money that pays the bills. To do this, we need to make product decisions that are also good commercial decisions. At times we’ll need to hack things together to reach a milestone or win a customer. It won’t always be our best engineering or design work, but that won’t make it any less important or impactful. We expect everyone to wear both commercial and product hats with everything they do.
We believe this because tech companies can sometimes live in a bit of a suspension of disbelief that leads to the underlying health of the business not being considered. Hype is temporary, but not viability. This makes the correction all the more severe and damaging when viability inevitably becomes the only consideration. Building good commercial bones into a company takes time, and we want to build this way of thinking into the company from day 1.
How’s it going? This has helped us build an internally very transparent culture on finances: we maintain complete openness on everything from balance sheet to salary bands and founder salaries. It’s also helped us maintain a very commercially savvy team that cares about building good things well, rather than a team motivated by shiny tech. Where this is always a lot harder to apply is with our own product: We want to build the best customer service tool out there, so how good is good enough?
5. High autonomy, high expectations
We extend a lot of trust and autonomy to everyone here. For example, we don’t mandate fixed working hours, and everyone in the company has access to our company Spendesk alongside a personal equipment and productivity budget to buy whatever they need. We expect everyone to return that trust with commitment and integrity in everything they do, and a collaborative, caring and welcoming attitude to others. Our behavioural bar is high.
We believe this because everyone does their best work when given the freedom to do what they think is right, to use their time flexibly, to work in the way that works for them. However this kind of trust is easily destroyed, and to that end, we will have zero tolerance of toxic behaviour or abuses of that trust.
How’s it going? I think the best measure of this value is to look at the kinds of things we need (and don’t need) to give feedback to one another on. By that standard, we’re doing well here!
6. Nothing trumps physical health, mental health and family
Without our health and our loved ones, we cannot succeed in building Plain. We're not going to create a company at the cost of ourselves or the people we love. We will work hard but never neglect our own wellbeing. We will not take decisions that are likely to strain our relationships with significant others and family. We will actively look out for one another, check in with one another, and hold each other accountable on our health.
We believe this because burning ourselves out in order to build a company is self-defeating, and will eventually lead to that company failing. A company is nothing if not its people, so we'll look after them.
How’s it going? I think we are better here with our team than we are with ourselves as founders, which is a constant work in progress: There's always more work to do, always another problem to solve. Every now and then Matt and I definitely have to pull each other up on this one and make sure we're treating Plain as a marathon, not a sprint.
A year (and a bit) on...
We came up with these values in September 2020, and have kept them mostly in their current form, bar a couple of minor additions and edits.
Whenever we talk to someone about joining the team, we share these values with them and make time to talk through them. In many cases, doing this has confirmed a fit, made our values better, and helped convince people to join - all of our current team cited these as a major factor in deciding to join. In some cases, it confirmed that there wasn't a fit, and in a couple of cases even exposed contradictions that made us think harder about our values.
Most of our team met for the first time on Google Meet during the depths of lockdown last year. Yet, what's been great to see is that immediately, everyone knew that they had joined a group of people who believed in the same things as they did - being intentionally, proudly small, owning problems end to end, building a business, working autonomously and putting health above everything else.