Why are you running a business? That’s the question Natalie poses in this inspiring talk from BoS USA 2017. Natalie talks about the importance of putting your team first, and how to make sure you’re pursuing your own goals, and not just feeding ‘The Beast’.
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Natalie Nagele: The funny story is that I flew to London for two nights in June just to see Phil perform. So this is like… Yeah it’s like a thing. All right.
I am Natalie. I’m the co-founder and CEO of the best small little business in the world. I know I’m biased. We’re a mom and pop shop. I actually run the business with my husband Chris – we started it in 2000 we turned 17 next month which is just crazy. I work with 26 of the best human beings ever. They’re the nicest, kindest and really special. We’re based in Philly we have almost a little bit more than half remote team all over the place and we’ve built some cool products some probably hopefully you’ve heard of Beanstalk is almost 10. So we’ve also been in the SaaS business for a really long time. We have a product called Postmark and transactional e-mail. We have a little robot that helps you ship your code. And we have a new product on the way. It’s exciting but what’s special about WildBit I think is not really the products thing more there’s some more important things like we’re really happy profitable growing bootstrapped and having a lot of fun. But happy and fun weren’t always something that was going on – it wasn’t something came naturally. Especially in the last four years… I feel like I’m just piggybacking off of Jason’s talk but we come from a generation of companies that remembers when apps were launching maybe monthly not hourly. There was no ProductHunt, sales and marketing were really bad words and not talking to your customers was something that you really bragged about. That was like a badge of honour. So we’ve had to make some attitude adjustments since then.
But I’ll tell you a really scary story… a little sad. In 2013 while it was mainly Beanstalk that was our main product – it made all the money, it was growing really well, consistently. We knew exactly what it was going to make next month. It was profitable, provided for Chris and I, provided for our team and it enabled us to build a new product, we were playing around with Postmark. And then something bad happened. And it looked like that. And what happened to Beanstalk’s growth was that it stopped growing. It basically started to plateau. And that is scary for obvious reasons and not least of which is that we have a team to support, a new product to build. And oh my god this was going to be the end. I know now the plateaus are actually normal people just don’t talk about them. But at the time we thought there was absolutely no way of getting out of this.
The thing about Beanstalk is that… we always say to people that growth happened to us I don’t know how to reproduce it because we launched a product, a really good product and a really good time for the right customer. And then we just kept building a great product and then fixing it and making it better and customers kept talking about it and it worked. And we did have partnerships and we did have some integrations and we probably did some sales but Chris and I never set out to grow a product. Our entire team was product engineering and design. And some support. And so when a plateau happened when that happened we had absolutely nothing in our arsenal. And so we did something really stupid. We just started doing what everybody else was doing. And so it is like 2013 ish and everybody is talking about a 30 day trial. So we’re like okay that’s it’s going to double revenue. We spent months implementing a 30 day trial – did not double revenue, our revenue actually took a dip. We started looking into buying ads because ads were working but we didn’t stop to realize that just because we all run software businesses doesn’t mean we sell to the same audience. And so yes you can run a software business that sells to plumbers and maybe ads work for you. But when you’re selling to software developers it’s probably not going to work the same way.
And so we were running in a million directions. And I realize in hindsight now that was because we really didn’t know why we were growing like why did we have to get out of a plateau we were profitable we were OK lots of happy customers. What was the reason that we had to get out of it? For us – We just had to grow right because a business has to grow at all costs like just do it. And so it didn’t work obviously and things got really well I’ll get a little personal but things got really scary and really sad and dark at home. And so at this point Chris really hated work. He really didn’t want to come to the office. There was nothing no excitement no like jumping out of bed. We agreed. Kind of you know we talked about this morning. Chris agreed to take a month off. He went to Bhutan, hiked with his dad that really helped. I thought I was holding down the fort I thought it was okay until kind of doing dishes one day after dinner and realized like I didn’t know what a panic attack was until you actually experience one. So I was probably a little bit depressed too. And the reason is because you know we lost control we didn’t know what we were going to do. We didn’t know how to get out of it.
But when I started I said you know we’re happy we’re profitable we’re growing. So clearly there’s a happy ending or maybe it’s more like a happy beginning. But we did get out of it in the end. The way we got out of it was first acknowledging that we were in a bad spot. And then we did something that seems really obvious in hindsight. But we asked ourselves like a really simple question.
Why are we doing this?
Turns out we got ourselves into this really dark time by not asking ourselves that question for a while. Like what was the reason that we decided to take that risk great decided to go in and start a business and hire people and do all these things that we were doing, spend tons of money right. And so we did. We sat down and said Why are we doing this. And you know we started with thinking about like what were those reasons in 2000 when Chris convinced his dad to drop out of college to pay for programming classes. Why did he start WildBit and why were we running it today. And they were really simple reasons. Obviously financial security. Right. And that means a lot of things to a lot of people for us at the time it was things like being able to travel. Right. That was important to us.
And then there was. Can we control that financial security? Can we control our future? Can we be in control of how we got to where we want to go? Can we prove that we can do it? There’s an ego in entrepreneurship that I think is really OK and we wanted to prove that yeah we can. And we wanted to really love coming to work every day. What was the point. Otherwise if we didn’t jump out of bed and we were really excited and have a really good time there was no reason to do it. At no point in that dialogue was it like let’s build something and flip it like that was not the point. We did not just set out to be rich. Like if I wanted to be rich I would not sell to software developers. It was all of those things combined. Obviously we want to have money but like all of those things combined were the reason. And so it’s important – we all have to ask ourselves this question and ask it constantly, why are we doing this. We as founders why are we running this business. What’s the point. Do those reasons match what they did before? Lives change. Maybe those do shift but that’s OK. And so what got us in that dark place is that as we got bigger. We created more and more distance between those original reasons or those reasons that mattered to where we were today. And it’s not intentional right. Like I didn’t set out to. I don’t want to. Clearly something was pushing us there. And it’s this like really powerful force that in the last year I’ve started to kind of affectionately name The Beast.
And The Beast is somebody we are all extremely familiar with – it turns out that the force the strong force that pushes against you, away from all those reasons of why you want to run a business in the first place is actually your business. Because there’s this weird thing that happens as you’re growing. When you’re not looking the business starts to breathe on its own starts to kind of take life starts to try to be
real and it starts asking you for things. It becomes an insatiable beast with a never ending appetite. The illustrations are amazing I know. I don’t know why but it has a never ending appetite it always once more right wants to be bigger ones to grow faster once to grow at all costs it wants to be more important not by accident, because we created it this way we asked it to be this. And it becomes the voice in your head the voice that says faster or more, bigger. That’s the voice. Higher more kept funding whatever and it does it so simply just changes the conversation. That initial sentence that you used to ask yourself is What do I need or what does my team need do I want.
And now all you’re doing is saying what does the business need. And that simple change has a dramatic impact because The Beast doesn’t care about you or what you want. It wants to be bigger and fatter and more important but you might want to grow and be bigger all those things are true for you as well. But there’s more to that. You might want to be happy or have fun or be content. You know all those things are really important to you as well.
I was having a conversation with some great friends who run businesses much larger than ours. And there was an important decision that had to be made and we were all sitting around the table and we’re all just kind of talking and it was like what’s better for the business what does the business need. How’s this going to make an impact on the business. Took us forever to realize that nobody had turned to the founders and said like. What do you guys want. What will make you happy. And I promise you that the minute that conversation changed the decision direction changed as well right. We have to remember that the business is not real.
And that’s what Chris and I had start reminding ourselves – we invented it right. In and of itself it is not real. But it enables something that is. And what is real is the people. You and me right. Founders we are real. We matter. Our team is real and it matters. Your customer absolutely real definitely matters. And if you can get it right you maybe even have a community that’s real that is impacted by your business and it matters right.
So when Chris and I were in that kind of dark place and we were trying to get ourselves out of it and we realized that we were allowing the business to drive a lot of our decisions with no purpose or intention. We had to focus on what’s real for us – real meant focusing on the people in the business for us. That meant we had to focus on ourselves and on the team first.
So the biggest challenge I think in growing your business and moving forward is to tame the beast from becoming that voice in your head. The one that controls you, the one that doesn’t care about you or what you want. Because your reasons for running the business matter. And that’s how we got out of it. We just focused on the people, what was real, we did not allow the beast to take control. And the first place that we focused on was our team.
I promise I’m not trying to say that caring about your team is somehow noteworthy. I understand that that’s an obvious proposition. But what changed for us was the decision to make our team number one – ahead of revenue, even profits and ahead of our customer. And there’s so much written, and so many great companies that we know that have made that similar decision, that have decided that they had to focus on their team first and foremost, that if they focused on their team’s happiness and fulfilment and security everything else would follow suit. My new favourite book (new to me not new but brilliant) – Bo Burlingham looks at these organizations that have been able to maintain their independence, their identity, their mojo, all these amazing things, but still become really awesome like really successful. And how did they get there – like what about them is different. And what he realized was that no matter how much we know that you have to maintain an incredibly strong relationship with your customer with your community with your supplier. What comes as a priority to these small giants is that they pick their team as number one. Why? Because they’re the ones doing the work right? If you focus on your team first they’re the ones talking to suppliers and your customers and all those things. Partnerships all of that stuff. Our job is to provide a safe environment behind them rally behind them so that they know that they can charge forward and make the company what it is today. So for the last couple of years I’ve been saying like oh WildBit exists for the team and there’s this part of me that I always felt some guilt around that I wasn’t that bad, should I focus on the customer first? The business exists to make something that a customer wants to buy. Customers number one all these things. But somehow for us if we were for Chris and I are our priority is longevity right sustainability who would want to be around for a long time – 17 years is no accident. And so for us we’ve always looked at that if we focus on the team first, that creates a future proof organization. Markets change, customers needs can and will change right. But if we build a team that’s committed to each other and not to just some product and we’ll build another product. Like if everything blew up tomorrow, all four products that I would be really sad had happened. I am 100 percent confident that we would all sit together on a table and we would figure out what we’re going to do next together. Because that’s what matters. WildBit as a team is the important part. But how do you do that in practice? And for us in practice that meant we had to build an intentional culture.
When I started working with Chris we were both really young and we worked at a really young team and culture was not something that we talked that we didn’t know that was a thing like that. All we cared about was paying our bills and answering customers and that was it. And so I remember the very first time that the concept of team really started to show up and that was on our very first retreat in Cyprus 2007. We were on this company retreat – we had never talked to each other. Like video or with voice we only chatted it was like Yahoo chat or something. And so when we met we didn’t really expect it but we had this really emotional kind of greeting like we were all really happy to see each other in real life. What had happened unbeknownst to us was that while we were building a product together we were building Beanstalk. We had been building a team. People who really cared about each other who cared about that mission and that kind of thing that we were building – it was really special. We spent a week, we cooked together a lot you know we had dinners together we planned it was beautiful. It was really really special. But I can’t say that we went home and said like okay let’s build a culture.
A lot of our culture sadly I guess really happened to us. And so one of the things that people really kind of applaud WildBit for is that we have a very family friendly culture so we have like really great working hours. We have a kids room in the office. We do family happy hours like that kind of stuff. But I can’t tell you that we set out to make it so what really happened was our young team started to grow up.
We started having you know finding partners having children. Chris and I had our first daughter. Our priorities changed. It’s like I don’t want to work all night I want to hangout with my kid. But that’s not a good way to build a culture.
Because what happens to everybody else what happens to the people who are in different situations right. We don’t have that. Or what if we didn’t have kids. Would we have been as understanding and The Beast that doesn’t really care about culture. Because people are expensive – culture, good healthy culture is expensive. And I remember the first time The Beast kind of tried to take control of our culture.
So in our trying to kind of get out of this dark time figure out how to grow the business again we started hiring a little bit faster than we normally would. And those new people come with new ideas and new ways of doing things and all this stuff. And before that we didn’t really have a lot of policies we just kind of got our work done. So now there’s all this stuff coming at us and my gut reaction was to start policing everybody. I started writing policies. I was writing a policy a week at one point and it was really miserable. I was chastising the whole team when one person did something I didn’t like. Not my proudest moment. And so on the following company retreat we all sat down. And I asked the team how they were doing. Turns out I wasn’t the only one who was not really into all the policymaking – who knew. And so we sat on this retreat and we started to say well look what happened. How did we get here. And we realized that we had never intentionally said what it was that made Wildbit, “WildBit”, what was our culture. How do we make sure that as we’re hiring new people we communicate that outwardly and ourselves internally and so that’s what we did. We decided to figure out like what our WildBit’s values. And we said like Let’s write them down. And so at a table. Chris and I shut up and ask the team what does it mean to work at WildBit. And we let them speak clearly and and they told us. And they wrote down like what is it that makes WildBit, WildBit. What do we expect from ourselves what do we expect of each other what do we want to communicate to the other people who might want to come work here. How do we define our culture. And this, writing down our values was the very first time that we took culture seriously and started really aiming all of our direction towards being team first.
But it turns out that culture is actually really simple it’s just shared values and behaviours. If you believe Wikipedia but it’s it it’s just shared values and behaviors right. It’s not complicated. It’s not pingpong tables. It’s not this. I still don’t know what this is. I don’t know. It’s at Google so it must be good. It’s not bars that’s not culture. Those are perks. Right. And culture is not the beer test guys although the beer testers you hire a bunch of people for culture but really you’re just hiring people you want a beer with. Right. You’re not going to build a good culture that way. Culture is just having shared values. But if you choose to run a business that focuses on your team first you have to make sure that those values are healthy. That they do favour and do exist for the team that builds the products.
How do you do that? Well you ask yourself a second very important question. Why do people work. Why they work for you. We had to really say why are people working for us, for WildBit. And I can only come up with two reasons. One is really romantic, and the one we like to talk about as employers. People work for that fulfilment in their professional lives right. They work for their careers. They work to be good at what they do to get better at what they do they have a skill to have a craft they want to hone it right. That’s really important and that’s the one we all focus on and focus our values around. But there’s a second one that I think is probably more important. And that’s to enable a life outside of work. Right. We work for hobbies. We work to send our kids to good schools, to buy houses, to take care of our parents, to go on vacation, to learn how to fly airplanes. We have people who are pilots say but that’s that’s important. Right. So if you want to build a culture and build a team that focuses on your team you have to make sure that you’re making a decision between whether or not your team works to live or lives to work. And you build the values around that. And that’s what we did right. We took our values – the team sat down at this table. We talked about what it meant to work at WildBit back and we wrote them down and we published them on the Web site and they’re here in all their glory. These are the 10 rules that define the way we work. Don’t have to read they are on the site.
But they’re bookmarked by two really well and they fall into one of those two categories. They are there to enable that success in your professional life or to enable the life outside of work. That’s why they exist. And their bookended by two reminders one to myself and Chris and one to the team. And the first one is that while it is product agnostic and that we exist for our team and we put that up there is number one because when The Beast tries to take over and tries to convince us to move in other directions we are reminded right in front of our faces and for the rest of the world why we exist. And the second one is a story.
On that same retreat or we sat down and started discussing all of these policies. Someone in the team finally said look why are we doing this. At the end of the day. We’re trying to fight against this right. All this negative policy writing was to try to avoid this do on to others it’s so simple right. And so somebody said it and then somebody said it again and so don’t be an asshole somehow became this truly and honestly value no return for a while. For a company we have to have value policies right. But we just make sure that all the policies that we have written and that we continue to write to back up those two values are those 10 values and those two reasons for why people work. Policies like flexible working hours. Those pilots I was saying we have two guys who got their private pilot’s license. You are very much dependent on the weather to become a pilot. So if it’s really nice at 2 o’clock in the afternoon go fly a plane. We’re not saving lives here right.
So allowing the team to have a life and career together or even a career that works around the life is really important to us. We do profit sharing with the team obvious right. Competitive salaries are obvious. Private offices because if you want people to accomplish or achieve that success in their professional lives they have to get work done. And the way to get work done you need actual quiet time. So everyone at WildBit gets private offices whether remote or in the office. And the best benefits that we can afford. I once did a talk about culture and somebody said like I get it, you have a lot of money but what about me I don’t have a lot of money. Well we all just do the best you can right. We can always do more and so just focusing your benefits on being the most and the best you can afford and as you can afford more you do better.
And focus on like the work that actually fulfills that team. What makes them enjoy coming to work. So when Beanstalk plateaud we had to make some decisions what do we do with a mature product. That has thousands of customers who love it and adore it and use it. But it stops growing. It stops gaining more customers than it was. And so we look out and say Can we get out of this. Can we get out of this plateau. Maybe some marketing maybe some ads. We weren’t really sure but we could do. We were competing in huge companies.
Or we could ask ourselves and the original team to build Beanstalk still with WildBit today and we asked them if you were to build Beanstalk today what would it look like. Well I can assure you that it would not look like Beanstalk because the value prop we were solving then is not the same problem that we are solving today. And so Chris and I had this decision to make. Do we take the kind of less risky approach of trying to get to a mature product with an audience and all these things out of the plateau, but build something or ask the team to build something they weren’t as excited about. Or do we take the higher risk I would say approach and build something brand new but have the reward of a team that’s working on something that they’re crazy excited about and passionate about. So obviously that’s what we did. We decided to build a brand new product and it might come out this century… It’s coming it’s coming I’m sorry it’s coming. Focusing on the team is important but we can’t forget that there is another party to building a company and that is the founders.
In that dark time. Chris and I forgot to ask ourselves what we. Why were we here. What were those reasons of why we wanted to be business owners and employers and all those things that come with it.
So sometimes it’s important to stop and make some decisions around like what kind of business do you want to run in the first place. Oddly for us we don’t get a lot of really good options for some reason either. The lifestyle business which I thought was a good thing but apparently now has like all kinds of negative connotation you have no aspiration to be bigger fine whatever. But if I’m not choosing to just be a lifestyle business which I don’t really love that it’s gotten this bad rap but then my only other option apparently is to try to be this.
I have to have 300 percent growth every year or otherwise I’m dying. I have to 10x exit’s billion dollar IPO whatever… but those are my options. I’m sorry I don’t really identify with either one of those. I think from just the business look we’re just regular business I think a lot of us are just regular businesses right and there’s nothing bad about that’s actually really beautiful. Profit driven businesses are very nice regular businesses and they’re not that unique to our industry. I don’t know why we keep making stuff up but. If you go to an industrial park, you will see hundreds of businesses that have been around for dozens of years that are focused on profits and their team and making a product and selling it and all these things they have the same problems we have, they are beholden to the same economic principles that we are. And before anybody says it SaaS businesses are very capital efficient. I know that. But other than. And that’s it right. So determining that was the first step in saying like Okay well what a regular business is look like. Guess what. They have ups and downs. And flatlines. It all happens. Because they are around for a long time. When you’re around for a long time things change and things happen and it became ok.
I don’t know why there’s this misconception that entrepreneurs are supposed to suffer. We’re supposed to work these insane hours unsustainable hours. We’re not supposed to give ourselves anything back until the business makes it whatever. I don’t know what that means. We brag to our friends that we don’t have time for books or to see them or to go to you know baseball games or whatever. Why? We didn’t design businesses that way. That’s not why we came into running a business right. So you have to look and you have to think well what does it mean to build something to sell it. That founder has to optimize for revenue. Therefore spending as much as possible. Therefore their salary being very much a decision of The Beast right. Can’t pay yourself too much because The Beast is more because to grow faster you need to put it all back into the business. That is a risky risky option because then you’re also building up debt. So these founders that are working all these insane hours that are suffering and struggling and trying to sell have so much debt that their only option is at the end of the rocket ship right. That’s the only way out. And we know what the statistics on that are but let’s say you do exit. What do you do with all of that debt? I talked to so many founders who didn’t pay themselves well all throughout building the business. Then maybe they sold it. But by the time they got out they were miserable. They didn’t make any money but they did have a lot of really nice TechCrunch articles. So that was worth it. Oh but what about this. That’s what I’m building. A regular business that’s built to keep, that’s profit focused right has ups and downs. But a regular business that’s profitable – let’s take like basic SaaS metrics like let’s say you have a profit margin of 30 percent a three million dollar business will net the founder a million dollars a year. Annually for a long time and I know there’s ups and downs whatever but you’re in control of that. And what’s more is you’re building an extremely lucrative asset. Because more and more we’re seeing that there’s a lot of interest in profitable sustainable business. So if you do choose to exit them we could talk about that later. You have a much better seat at the bargaining table than you do with the other one. And the risk is smaller. Because The Beast is not interested in your lifestyle or what you want. The Beast isn’t interested in you and your lifestyle. The Beast wants you to suffer it wants you to struggle. Want you to feed it wants to get fatter. But that’s not why we got into this in the first place right so we have to tame the beast turn it into a little kitty cat. And you have to take care yourself. The more space you put between your financial security and the future of the business the safer your business will be. Vulnerability happens when you’re strapped. Right. A lot of founders exit because they’re strapped. They are tired, exhausted and broke. And they look for that exit because that’s the only option left. So your incentive to keep going is highly dependent on how much space you have between your financial stability and security and what the business needs to do. You’ll take on the right kind of risk at that time but you’ll be in control of.
Jason said… I never want to advocate a certain lifestyle of a lot of friends who have exited. And I think it’s OK. The important thing to do is that you exit because it’s in it for you right. You’re doing it for yourself and not for the business. If it stops being fun if it’s not matching those reasons of why you started or why you want to run a business and it’s okay to let it go but you just have to make sure that you’re letting it go for you and not for anybody else. So I’ll tell you guys another story I’ve never told many people. We get approached for acquisition, I don’t know, a lot for me probably not a lot for other companies and we never really take the call. And the one time somebody reached out who we actually really admired. And so we said okay we’ll meet. We sat down at the table and you know the proposition is basic, right, it’s standard. But it’s like we’re going to come and acquire everything we’ll take away all the pain. HR accounting finance whatever. I will give you all this money so you can take the product and you can make it huge. It was like OK it’s kind of cool. So you know after you know I have sweaty palms the whole like you know you’re shaking kind of, we left. We came home we’re like wow. Like we can do this right. Like all the things we want to do with the product and all these things. And then when we finally went in adrenaline subsided we started to say well OK we just figured out why we want to run a business in the first place so let’s figure out if this is going to help. And there was a lot of financial incentive to take this deal. But would we be in control? No matter what they promise you… And would we have fun going to work? No. I think there is no way any of those other things would have actually happened had we taken the deal. And then – why grow faster in the first place? Like we were profitable making enough money to sustain us as a team and do things our way. There was no reason to feed The Beast. There was no reason the product had to get any bigger than what it was currently.
Grow! Grow! Grow!
But at no point in this kind of catharsis did we say we weren’t going to grow. We really want to grow the company for a lot of reasons but we really really really want to grow. The only difference is that doing that work meant that we got to do it a little bit differently. We got to change the reasons for why we grow. We got to grow with intention. Right now because I know what I want. I can say how fast I want to grow. I want to grow to sustain the team and the culture that we built. I want to grow for the team right. So I want to make sure we can only grow as fast as we can maintain all of those things that we’ve built to make sure that the team is fulfilled professionally and personally. I get to grow the way I want to and that’s really exciting. So the best example I have of that in recent times Postmark.
We decided to build Conveyor and at the same time we said let’s ramp up Postmark. You know we’re in a really competitive space but the product is spectacular. People love it. Let’s spend some effort and energy and make some changes. And the first thing we did was we ended up hiring, I call front of the house, basically marketing, not really sales, but marketing, product management all these roles that our engineering company basically had never had. And it worked. Who knew where it worked. We were able to actually say like oh we can be in control of our growth in a way that’s sustainable. And we were able to kind of take something that was kind of passing along and move it up. But how we grow is still a decision that we make consciously every day.
In January of this year we said like OK what’s our marketing strategy for this year? And it seemed like everybody was going all in on content like everybody I just couldn’t think that I’d like jump out of bed in the morning if my team wrote another 17 ways to better transactional e-mail blog post. Like I just there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just not going to do it for me. Right. And it’s not going to do for the team that I’ve hired. So instead we said well what is it that gets us out of bed what gets us excited. And for us right now that’s making those really personal relationships with customers and potential customers. And that’s what we did. We went all in on making those relationships. So we started doing outbound sales. But instead of spray and pray. And I bet my inbox looks like a lot of yours it’s full of garbage. We said like why don’t we do something that makes an impact. These are packages that go to outbound prospects that we hand select so we don’t just buy lists or whatever blahblahblah, we actually go when we pick companies that we really want to use Postmark that we like really respect. It’s a tremendous amount of work. And then we design these awesome packages we handwrite notes. It is not scalable by any stretch but the ‘No’s we get from that are so positive we get we get so many ‘No’s but they’re great like those people are like I don’t need it right now but I love you guys. Thank you. And there’s plenty of ‘Yes’s. Like it’s not that but it’s amazing right. We made a personal relationship with somebody we went into their mailbox not an inbox and they don’t get anything there anymore. We started going to conferences. But like sponsoring conferences one thing you can send a lot of money to a lot of places and they put your logo. Now that’s a sponsorship. But you’re not making a connection there right. You’re hoping somebody google it while they’re sitting there. We said it’s like well we want to shake hands and we want to hear your story and we want to tell our story and we won’t understand what your pains are and try to solve them. And so we started sending entire delegations to conferences. Not scalable crazy expensive but it works. We made amazing connections with people people who still email in like hey I saw Mark at the conference he’s awesome like want to know all of this stuff that’s real and that makes us happy that allows us to grow at a rate that works for us. I’m sure. That I could hire a really brilliant marketing person who have come into WildBit and tell me all the ways we’re doing it wrong and all the better ways we can do it going much more traditional routes. I’m positive right. The thing is that coming to this conclusion you don’t have to do it any other way other than what makes us happy. And so we don’t need that right. I don’t care. I don’t need to grow faster I need to grow. But I want to do it because it’s what I want and it because it’s going to sustain myself and my team.
You Can Do It
Entrepreneurs I think are very stubborn. Maybe I’m wrong but stubborn and committed to doing things the way we want to do. We’re not really content with what the status quo is – at least like the entrepreneurs that I really respect. And so I think we have no excuse not to do it for those reasons why we set out to do it in the first place. Our big kind of change, our big shift, how we were able to grow again and be happy and find our ‘better place’ was when we consciously explicitly decided to make choices right. We were intentional. It’s just for Chris and I those choices meant focusing on ourselves and on our team. And we totally stopped serving the business. It serves us right. That’s why we created it. More importantly probably it serves these people.
That’s my team. That’s why the business exists for them. And those are all their hobbies actually. And it’s really special. And it serves me and Chris because we built it for ourselves right. We built it so that we could be happy so that we could have financial security. We do not serve it. We do not need to suffer we do not need to struggle. So hopefully with those newfound conclusions or understanding that our goal, Chris and I, is to make sure that we never forget that the business is not real. And just focus on those two really important pieces and then we’ll be around for another 17 years.
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Mark Littlewood: Right, fantastic. questions. You wave your hands at me and I’ll get a mic to you. Right, who’s going first – here please. Thank you. Absolutely rapt by that thank you Natalie. Bo Burlingham’s ‘Small Giants’ is one of my favourite books. When we moved from the Seaport to the Continental in 2012 we had 650 people at the event. I stood up on the stage in the morning and I was like I can’t see people in the corners of the room didn’t feel right. And I read that book on the flight on the way home. And that’s why we decided not to go bigger and shrink it down. Could still do with a few more people in the seats though – we’ll come to that later. All right. Have I filled some time to get a mic to someone?
Audience Member: So how do you help people who have been effectively eaten by the beast who won’t go home at night who won’t take vacation. Who are certain that they do have to sacrifice themselves to the volcano gods of growth? How can you get through to them when they’re so convinced that the health of the business and the ability for the business continue is dependent on them killing themselves.
Natalie Nagele: Are you talking about employees or like other founders?
Audience Member: Other founders, the ones who say it’s their baby.
Natalie Nagele: My father, runs a very large business and is that person? He bragged – I’m too busy. I can’t get through to him, that will never happen. But I think I don’t know, this maybe. Like I think more examples of why it’s better and why it can work – I think is really important. I talked to friends in similar situations and we share it more and talk about it. The proof has to be I understand that and that’s what we try to do. There’s a lot of personality that’s responsible for the people who do think I have to go at all costs. Sometimes we get in a point where we’re convinced and we’ve given a lot and we can’t get out of it. We’d have to admit to ourselves we’d been doing it wrong this entire time. There’s a Twitter rant and someone posted a job posting and was like we are a company with a great work ethic, it’s not unusual for people to work 70 hours a week. I read the comments and there were many people there that are you’re lazy, that’s the way I’ve got it and now I run three businesses. It’s not worth engaging with that cause it’s a lot of like how can I be wrong this whole time? The more we tell good and positive stories about how it does work, you can be profitable doing it that way, I think encourages others to try.
Mark Littlewood: This is a really good point. I would say your business is so boss and the anti boss business is UBER for me, I hate them! They have this work hard, you get paid on paper, you get shared option, they sack a bunch of people 11 months and 28 days because they can get the options back and they can recycle it. It’s so in the interest of so many bits of the ecosystem to push this work relentlessly hard, don’t be suckered into it. If you want to do that, that’s what you’re happy about, great! Here!
Audience Member: Natalie, in the beginning you made that drive, that 70-hour work ethic. I’m wondering did you make this – if you would advise people on when to start thinking about the transition to the saner approach to running a business, is that something that you would say right upfront or once they get to a certain point?
Natalie Nagele: Literally just had this discussion. There’s two distinctions there. There’s one where I don’t think any founder can expect or require 70 hours a week from their employees from day one. So there, I understand that some people want that and there’s a lot of industries – I mean you work hard and that’s personal and you do what you need to do but you don’t want to burn out so you have to find the middle ground. Always asking yourself why you’re doing this is the critical part. We had kids and we asked it – so you have to ask what’s important? What’s the sacrifice that I’m making? I would say when you have a family, it’s important to start figuring out what you’re doing. Saying am I missing out on hobbies and can I find a middle ground there? I don’t think I can give you a like – on day 75 you have to start working 40 hours. We only work 32 hours, we don’t work 40.
Mark Littlewood: Before – quick show of hands of who left a company and just spent more time working on that company. Quick! One. Who’s ever left the company and was like I have half the time I was working I was wasting my time? Motion carried!
Natalie Nagele: That’s why we have 4 day work weeks.
Mark Littlewood: Question here!
Audience Member: Thank you for being here! My question centres around both age and empathy. It seems like a lot of what you’re talking about is capacity to empathize with the folks you’re working with. I’m in the minority of folks who are 30 and under here and there’s a lot of misconceptions about people in my age you started to see these things and having these experiences together and would you have advice for bridging those generational gaps so that folks can see and understand and empathize across those lines and realize it’s not just the generation complaining or whatever? It really is about living a healthy life that would make you want to stay with the company.
Natalie Nagele: I’m a millennial too – I have a friend who works for a consulting firm that helps law firms, and they have trouble recruiting new lawyers, because these lazy millennials don’t want to work 90 hour a week for some hopeful reaching of partnership. It was such a bad problem that they would have millennials come down and speak to these law firms and say they’re not lazy, they realized the way our parents did it, they believed that the life was work, that a person should achieve all of their fulfilment from their career and everything else was secondary. And we have started to realize that’s not the case. And so I think like more and more of those discussions – we don’t say that, we just look at it and say what’s important to you? On any side of that, they wouldn’t say working 90 hours a week. They might say I want to reach this level in my work or accomplish this, they can be looked at and say how can we do it in a rational way? We asked people and taking that and my job is to say how do I get you here? And you look at the personal and professional equally, not just the professional part.
Mark Littlewood: Jonathan! No, beg pardon!
Audience Member: Hey, Nathalie! Your team first philosophy resonated with me. How do you combine that with – what if there are performance issues or someone might not be a good fit?
Natalie Nagele: It’s never happened. Well, I fire very late and am proud of it. Part of it is I’ve learned over the years that we have to set expectations better so we got better a hiring now. But I give everyone the benefit of the doubt so we work hard to get to a point where we mutually understand – it won’t surprise anybody. It’s just me and Chris and I’m very – I’m not passive aggressive and very open and communicative and very obvious. I always tell my team believe me you will know what I feel. I will tell people when things are wrong so that we can try to right the ship – but we have to fire people but usually I look at it – the last person we had to let go, they were really unhappy so that was a mutually necessary thing. Does that answer your question?
Audience Member: I thought your presentation is pretty refreshing. I’ve actually been an entrepreneur myself and it was really bad for me to the point where like I got kicked out of the VC firm that I was working out of because I was sleeping there. So I think one of – I’m curios if you would agree that – I think one thing that a lot of entrepreneurs don’t think about is how much it affects your health. I ended up getting burnt out and thought like I couldn’t function for at least 3 weeks. I was in bed and couldn’t get up to go eat. It got horrible, and my dad is an entrepreneur and is the way you described and now he’s going to the hospital and has dizziness. I’m curious – I think that’s a major issue. People take the health thing very lightly until it becomes really bad. For me it became really bad to the part I was like ok, I just need a job.
Natalie Nagele: We martyr ourselves and comes in everything, our time with our families and it’s the collective health is not the only thing we give up, but it’s a significant one. Mental health we talk about it all the time, but how important is it – if you don’t give yourself space to think, you won’t move the business forward. I think all of that collectively if we stop to ask ourselves what are we doing to move the business and ourselves forward, health would be a big one that we’re definitely letting go off.
Audience Member: Hi! In terms of the philosophy you talked about, I think what’s really interesting a lot applies to being a bootstrapped company cause you don’t have anyone who may have different incentives. How can you embody the ideas you presented when you are a VC back firm? Many start-ups might not know what it means and might take a seed round or smaller round to start, but once you do that, you’re on this path. How do you adjust or try to embody what you presented today?
Natalie Nagele: I have no idea. I mean it’s a great question cause you’re right and it’s a one sided conversation because you have other people who have a seat at the table and they aren’t interested in – they are the beast to some degree, so I don’t know – I can imagine if your performance is good, you can start to come and say these are the ways you’re supposed to run a business but I think once you’re on that ride, you kind of – I don’t know honestly. I’ve never seen it happen but that’s why a lot of founders leave once everything is cleaned up.
Mark Littlewood: Thank you!
Audience Member: Hey, Nathalie! I work for a company that wants to just be a company and this resonated with us. We’ve gone through the whole process and we had our values, we talk about them every quarter but they’re on this piece of paper. How did you take the set of values you wrote down and make it resonate and turn it into culture?
Natalie Nagele: Yeah. The first one the team wrote it down and that is a really important distinction. There’s a company in Philadelphia who came in and wrote the values of the company. That resonated well with the employees – because they happen so late, our values were defining what we thought we wanted or what we were. And then they come up in conversation. It’s not in a funny way, but we use that in a lot of the places. Be practical is another big one. They do come up in conversation and we review them as a team. On the last retreat, we sat together and said how are standing on these? Again, the team talks. We provide feedback where needed but we left the team say where are we right now? It used to be their customer was number one and then we moved another one to number one cause it was the priority.
Audience Member: The fact that you bring them up in conversation is good and that means leadership needs to do more to remember that. I don’t think that’s happening with us. We review it every quarter – we should tweak this one and then it dies.
Natalie Nagele: It’s a reminder to me. 50% of my job is team. I’ve made that a conscious decision that if I know that half my time is focused on the team, I won’t forget that’s an important part of our values. There’s a lot of that, making sure we bring that into actions. A lot of it is for me and Chris, that we’re focused – and then hiring. The first thing I do when I’m interviewing and onboarding, I literally read every single value and I explain all the ways that we got to these values. We don’t do a test, but that’s as close as we get. I explain why they all exist.
Mark Littlewood: Thank you!
Audience Member: Thanks for a great talk! We talked about self-care on the founder side. We understand what the beast is asking of us but you’ve eluded to the importance to some of the leaders and how to take care of the team and have a structure that – if not put first, putting them in the front row. Can you elaborate a bit on how it is that you take care of the team – beyond the statement that it’s an important thing to do, what did you do that’s helpful?
Natalie Nagele: Yeah, there’s the policies, the things we do, but I think an employer’s job is to – to focus on your team, you have to create security around them. I don’t want them going home worried about their place in the company, their relationships with other employees. In action that means that I’m very much like that’s their mental safety and security, I want them to go and be free of Wildbit and do their things. We make sure there’s no passive aggressiveness across the team, that we’re open, I’m having personal emotional conversations with the team. Our 1-1 arent structured, but how are you feeling? If they say I’m not sleeping – and then we figure it out. That security is the main frameworks so the team knows that everything is ok and then you can build policies around it, but same thing with the stability of the company. We do profit sharing, we talk about the good and bad and we’re open about it and everyone goes home and says we’re not in a great spot right now, but we’re working on it. And then you build up everything around it – policies and benefits, you bill as you go. Every chance I get it’s what more can we do? We pay health insurance – I will do it until it gets out of hand. Then we switched carriers. Looking at that and saying how can I fit in with the benefits to make sure we’re always asking the team first?
Mark Littlewood: Thank you! I think that’s all we’ve got time for. And we’re done! Fabulous! Thank you!