Dear Reader,

It’s been about three months since I quit my job at Estimote and I think it’s a good time for this blog post. I already have some perspective and distance, but also still have a lot of fresh memories. I worked at Estimote for almost 2 years. Unfortunately, it was impossible for me to pursue my goals there, so eventually I made a decision to leave. It wasn’t an easy decision since there is a multitude of things I love about this company and I want to describe them in this blog post. I hope this will be helpful for others to make their companies/organizations places where people really enjoy their work. As indicated in the title, this blog post is very subjective and I focus on the positives – not everything was as perfect as described all the time. We are all humans after all.

In the previous article about Estimote I planned to describe our culture in a series of in-depth articles. Unfortunately I failed to accomplish that before I quit and now it’s even more unlikely. Sorry about that.

Also one remark – I decided to write in the past tense, but many of the things I’m writing about are still happening at the time I’m writing it :)

With that being said, let me tell you about…

Taking care of the culture

One of the most significant qualities of Estimote is how it approaches culture. The first step, where I think many companies fail, is that at Estimote founders treated this topic seriously. There are several indications of that: the existence of a culture team, conversation about culture and values during the recruitment process or company-wide training in giving feedback, to name a few. I wrote more about it in my previous post, so please read it if you haven’t already.

Feedback

Talking about culture, one of the cornerstones of it was how we approached giving and receiving feedback. To be honest, I tried to describe it in details, but the number of tools and processes and complexity of some of them was just too much for me to put it in a single article. I will focus here on the main elements, which in my opinion are:

  • Evaluations
  • Continuous feedback
  • Quality of feedback

Evaluations

Roughly every 6 months there were company-wide evaluations. Each person was writing feedback for other 2-8 people that they worked with during that period. Feedback was by default anonymous.

There are three sections:

  • Self-evaluation
  • Assessment of others
  • Company evaluation

The first two are pretty similar in structure. You assessed given person in three dimensions:

  • Competencies – “what you deliver” – e.g. how good are your technical skills if you are an engineer.
  • Process – “how you deliver” – this includes things like time-management, punctuality, prioritizing etc.
  • Profile – “how you collaborate” – how you handle relationships and communication.

In addition to that, you had to write 3-5 “pluses” and “delta-pluses”. Pluses are obvious – you praise given person for the good job they have done, their attitude, the progress they made, etc. Delta pluses, on the other hand, are about showing areas where a given person can grow or improve. Notice the difference – it’s not about what they are doing wrong, but what they can improve.

Company feedback is more about letting management know what people think about its decisions, what are the issues in the office, etc.

After you have written down all the feedback, there were 0.5-1 hour sessions, where founders talked with you about all that. They did that with every single person in the company.

For me, it usually took about 1-1.5 hour to write the feedback for each person I had been asked to evaluate (including myself).

I think this system is great for several reasons, some of them are:

  • Reflecting on yourself is a great tool for self-improvement.
  • You can gather high-quality feedback from your coworkers and learn how they perceive you and what they think you should improve.
  • For the company, it’s an opportunity to learn about existing issues and mitigate them before they have a chance to escalate.

The problem is that in order to make it work well, you need an atmosphere of trust. If people see it as a way to criticize others and an opportunity to complain, that’s counter-productive. A great deal of consideration went into making these evaluations resistant to such issues: teaching people what is the purpose, creating guidelines or even phrasing the questions in the right way.

Continuous feedback

Another element of “the culture of feedback” is that you don’t give it only during the evaluations, but all the time throughout the year and you’re actively looking for it. It is more about the spirit and seizing the opportunity rather than any particular action so I will give you some examples of what I mean by that:

after some spontaneous meeting which I conducted, I got feedback from one of the product managers (who wasn’t even taking part in it, just sitting on a couch next to us). He praised me on what I did right and gave a couple of tips on what I can improve next time. at the end of any project, I always tried to give feedback to people I’ve been working with. It’s easy for people you’ve never worked before and somewhat harder when it comes to long-time teammates, but people were always grateful for that. We have been using Impraise – a software tool which facilitates giving and receiving feedback.

Quality of feedback

All of the above would be worthless if we didn’t know how to give feedback. Fortunately, this part is also covered. One of the ways to achieve that were company-wide training in giving effective feedback. All employees went through the same training, so we all had the same baseline and common language to talk about it. Furthermore, we were constantly encouraged by the founders to give each other (including them) feedback.

Team

Finding a team of people as extraordinary as one there is at Estimote is not an easy feat. People were brilliant, empathetic, motivated, caring, hard-working, diverse… Unfortunately, these are hollow words for someone who has not experienced it first hand so I will focus on the reasons why I think this has happened.

First is the nature of the company – it imposes diversity among employees. It’s not a regular IT company, where you have a couple of dozens of software engineers and some business people. At Estimote we needed:

  • CNC operators
  • Hardware engineers
  • Firmware engineers
  • Software engineers (mobile, backend, frontend, …)
  • Scientists
  • Designers
  • Community managers
  • Business people
  • Office managers
  • Managers
  • I still probably forgot about someone

This lead to an incredible diversity of professions, backgrounds, lifestyles, and worldviews. Such an environment is great for fostering creativity and personal development.

A second reason is the recruitment process. We usually hired people only if everyone on the team was convinced it’s a great (not merely good) decision. Also, for most positions, potential employees went through a test drive. They came to the office for one day to do work resembling their future tasks. This allowed both sides to learn each other in a real working environment and decide whether it is a good idea to work together. What’s more, John, who at some point was responsible for hiring, told me that about 20% of candidates were being disqualified based on their lack of culture fit – even if their technical competence was great!

Design

At Estimote design was always one of the most important elements of our products and it was also one of the building blocks of the culture. Our design team produced so many beautiful artworks, I will name just a couple of them to give you the general idea:

  • people who were leaving got cards with a picture of them (see mine below. And no, I don’t dress like that on the daily basis ;) )
  • a lot of items for our company trips – e.g. backpacks, stickers, leaflets, even the bus that was taking us there.
  • posters for many events like Christmas dinner, special days (e.g. Programmers Day), internal contests, etc.
  • at some point, our team got a custom scrumboard.
  • we even had awesome branded socks.

Movies is a separate category here. Sewi, who was our media/photo/video person is an absolute genius. One of the things I regretted most, was that most of the stuff he produced was only for our internal use. Some examples of what he created:

  • At some point, every new employee got a short movie about them on the first day of work.
  • Short stories about funny situations in the office.
  • We even had our own version of Home Alone.

Even though I am a type of person that can live in very ascetic conditions and wouldn’t really notice that something is missing, I really appreciated all of this and how it all created a unique atmosphere.

Experimental approach

Experimentation was at the core of the way we functioned at Estimote. We experimented with everything – the hardware we used, the products we developed, pricing, business strategy or even the company’s structure.

I remember that the last time we were changing our structure, our CEO said something like this – “We don’t know if the structure we proposed will work, but this is our best guess. If we see that it needs adjustments – we will adjust it.” Our founders never claimed that they know the answer to every question, but they knew that in order to find the best solutions we need to try out many possible options.

This approach is really compelling for me – it forces you to act, it forces you to change your behavior. It also forces you to fail – mistakes are part and parcel to experimenting. But it forces you to accept these mistakes and keep experimenting further until you find the right solution.

This comes with many challenges – constant experimentation may lead to a lack of stability or a sense of security. To a waste of time and resources. For some people, some experiments were triggers to quit. But it was exciting to work in such a vibrant environment and I think we really were able to strike the balance most of the time.

“Modular wisdom”

I don’t know if that’s the case with all Y-Combinator startups or even startups in general, but we had a huge number of mottos, which were repeated over and over (in huge part by our CEO) or even printed and posted on the walls. Even though some of them sound cheesy, I sometimes used them (and still use) to make better decisions. Maybe this is not particularly unique for Estimote, but I still really liked it. It really helped created a common language, which is a part of a culture. Some notable mentions:

  • “Make it work, make it better”
  • “Is this the problem we should be solving?”
  • “It’s not done until it’s shipped”
  • “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late””
  • “Fake it till you make it” ;)

Final notes

In the previous post I mentioned culture book and the five rules included there are:

  • We all create magical experiences
  • We will succeed by experimenting
  • We need feedback to grow
  • The physical world is diverse, so are we
  • We do things instead of talking

At the end of writing this post, I realized, that it roughly covers all of them. I think it shows how important conscious building of the culture is. Working at Estimote was an incredible privilege and I would like to thank all the people I had an opportunity to work with – they all had their input in making it a great place.

If you enjoyed reading it, please let me know – I definitely have much more to say about Estimote. As always – I encourage you to give me some feedback and to subscribe to the newsletter at the bottom of the page.

Have a nice day! Michał