Building a Good Company

Sushrut Munje shares on Frankaffe, what it takes to build a good company, experiences at Hammer and Mop & SILA, and how Ben Horowitz inspires through his tales.
courtesy: Sebastiaan ter Burg

“Be like Bill, and build a good company.”
Ben Horowitz

I kid you not, Ben wrote this way before the meme became popular. He was referring to Bill Campbell’s leadership at GO, which could be termed as a failure as an organisation (it raised big money but lost it all and was sold for peanuts to AT&T) but was always known as a great place to work at. And that’s the most important part. As a certain Jim Berksdale puts it, “We take care of the people, the products, and the profits – in that order.”

I’m glad my organisation and its leadership echoes these beliefs and consistently lives them. Being idealistic on paper is one thing, but leading by example requires humility and patience. Would credit the founders with staying true despite growing at this huge a scale in a matter of 5 years. My current role involves building the marketing and human resources departments across SILA, and it’s helping me build on my strengths. I wake up and go to work everyday knowing that my hard work and good results will make better things happen for the company and me. Thus my job is both, motivating and fulfilling. And it’s my objective to ensure that everyone across the group, across the sites in all cities feel the same. Since the departments (for our 1700 people strong group of companies) are being built from scratch, it’s a fun challenge.

How the Background Helps

Four years of building Hammer and Mop helped me realise my strengths and weaknesses, which helped with clarity in choosing my role at SILA. Lack of formal education prior to starting up had ensured that my mind is a blank slate, and my ‘business education’ involved rabid access to books, magazines and online media – everything that could help. It offered a good mix – for the books presented solid thoughts from thought leaders while the latest online content helped me stay updated with the trends. Hammer and Mop was an opportunity to experiment at the scale we were in, and we made the most of it.

Playgrounds within Playgrounds

Thanks to the material that was read and absorbed, I have always believed that an amateur who cares is a way better performer than a professional who doesn’t. Transformational leadership – sharing the wild vision, encouraging ambition, leading fruitful change –  plays a crucial role at startups because companies are frugal, material rewards are non existent, and a lot depends on delivery without instant gratification. Teams need to be motivated for a vision that’s greater than themselves, a common uniting factor which helps them work hard day and night to exceed expectations. This passion is not lost on customers, for it flows through every communication channel and service experience. And we thus win their love and solid support.

I was blessed with a strong team at Hammer and Mop. They were given freedom to make mistakes, learn and coach their colleagues. Everyone added a slice of their own personality to the brand personality, and thus the brand belonged to everyone, it was pampered by all. Despite differing competency levels, individuals strove to give their best, to the best of their capabilities, which made all the difference in the world. It is this lesson that I am now applying at SILA.

Being Responsible

We have reached a scale where the senior management needs to step up and take control from the founders for day to day affairs. My fellow HODs are from diverse backgrounds, which helps add perspective. It took me three months to settle in, understand boundaries, build core teams and launch a few major initiatives. The real work starts now.

Human Resources had one person earlier, now we are a team of 10+, which was made by stitching together smaller independent departments. This was done to bring accountability to the projects led by the smaller teams, since they used to be overwhelmed at times, there was no formal reporting structure in place with someone senior responsible. We got on board an experienced Generalist who, with her 8 years of solid experience, is capable of implementing concepts according to industry standards. I’m proud of my team – for we are stepping forward, identifying gaps, and taking on more responsibility to make SILA a great place to work at. I have communicated internally that the HR team is in constant spotlight so it keeps the pressure on, for we are new, and ought to be the most efficiently managed department across companies, thus leading by example.

Streamlining Internal Communication

Transparency and mutual respect is a priority at SILA, and we also believe that the real job of HR involves making itself dispensable. A suggestion box has been put up to encourage gratitude and feedback, which showed results from day one. We are also toying with performance management – recognising performance, seeing it clearly, fueling it further. Our plan of action is as follows:

  • Understanding potential of existing leaders
  • Helping them understand their own potential
  • Boosting dialogue between managers and their teams
  • Understanding team performances from manager’s perspective
  • Understanding individual strengths and helping them build them
  • Weekly check-ins to ensure things stay on course

People may rate other people’s skills inconsistently, but they are highly consistent while rating their own feelings and intentions. To see performance at individual level, we ask team leaders not about the skills of each team member but about their own future actions with respect to that person. The audacity of our plans is exciting and the shared enthusiasm of my team is inspiring.

Transforming Roles

There was no Marketing department earlier. We are now 10+ strong too, made by stitching together teams, changing roles, recruiting across departments so targets can be met. Customer service is a talking wall, communication plays a crucial role. We evolved our call centre into a communications department, promoted our executives to account managers, thus making them responsible for the entire customer lifecycle. We coated our Operations with Communications, thus freeing them of the stress to deal with customer issues. We even freed our Accounts team of the stress of following up aggressively for outstanding payments, Communications took over almost everything in a jolly good manner! A specialist has been recruited from Operations to be our feet on the ground, ensuring smooth delivery and promises being kept.

There used to be a handover in the middle of the lifecycle earlier, where call centre used to stop being involved after the sale was made, and Ops couldn’t manage delivery and communication thus seeing a desirable closure. Making one team responsible for the entire process has empowered everyone, and they also see the results, which makes them feel good. Operations can focus on what they do best, since someone else is acting as a buffer and absorbing all stress. And customers are the ultimate winners since they enjoy undivided attention with dedicated managers taking care of their requirements.

This Leads to Happy Customers

Our main customers are our service partners – all aggregator platforms and marketplaces present in the market – the biggest and the smallest – who give us a chunk of business. Our back end efficiency is resulting in better service delivery, smoother coordination and less communication gaps. As a result, marketplaces & aggregator platforms are receiving better reviews from their end customers thus leading to a win win situation.

Understanding Objectives

New projects often come up as someone’s brainchild. When the founder is communicating a concept to his manager, it has two sides – the objective, and the solution from the founder’s perspective. In this scenario, the manager is a responsible individual so the concept can be taken over and implemented. Objective communicated by the founder is usually a simple one liner – “Execute xyz” and the next steps are open to interpretation. If the initially suggested plan of action isn’t bringing in the desired results, it is essential for managers to come up with a solution that would help achieve the stated objective.

We have created our own version of an Apple-esque Mac team for a crucial new project. While the objective is clear, the initially suggested methodology involved friction at multiple levels, thus making it difficult for us to communicate value proposition and achieve the desired results. We took a step back, figured out an alternative way to achieve the objective in a 10x manner, recruited talent from across teams, and now this crack team is one with the most infectious energy around! We go live very soon and I cannot wait.

Winners Amongst Winners

In a matter of 3 months, I have 4 distinct teams reporting in, leading self drafted projects, with individual objectives, evolved roles, and have started delivering on promises made – this does not happen without the top management’s support and presence of talent. Support comes with a track record and sincerity. Talent has to be identified – not all high performers are painted blue – some thrive in red, some in green. And your head needs to sit firmly on your shoulders.

We are all geared up for an exciting 2016 and focused on building a darn good company. “Onwards and upwards”, as a dear patron always puts it :)

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