Dialling down the Opacity

My hymn to the fearlessly open company

Secrecy is the bread and butter of most companies and the tech revolution has done little to change this. Employees presume that they are well-paid, that their CEO knows what the hell they are doing, and that the company is going to be a roaring success.

With secrecy, companies are still tempted to run on bullshit and sell snake oil.

Tech start-ups will often talk about being in ‘stealth-mode’; isolating and optimising what makes their idea great before someone else can nab it (rather than buying it off them for stacks of money). They even try to keep a level of secrecy from the people they hire, and towering hierarchies start to emerge.

This is partly because their thinking has been mangled by the popular misconception that internet and computer software companies are involved in a brutal land war, where there can be only one winner in each given market. I wrote about this in detail through the guise of Facebook and Twitter here.

Fortunately there are some companies striking against this weird culture of espionage (I’m sitting at a desk at one right now), but this wasn’t always the case. So how did the bright lights of tech slip into these old bad habits? Why won’t Facebook play nice with Twitter? To understand, you have to go back to the start.

Man the barricades, the SEOs are coming!

Cast your mind back to the halcyon days of internet commerce; a time of terrible looking websites, open communities, neck beards and massive massive bubbles that threatened to annihilate everything. Into this world came the first internet marketers, known as SEO practitioners, who had the aim of achieving prominence in search listings for their clients.

In their wake these pioneering marketers were a bit like Conquistadors; destroying the new world they encountered as they found it. SEOs destroyed forums, blog comments, links, genuine sharing, web anonymity and eventually SEO itself when Google turned off keyword search and forced content producers to use Google Plus.

“SEOs destroyed forums, blog comments, links, genuine sharing, web anonymity and eventually SEO itself.”

For this SEOs are often vilified, but the marketplace was there for the taking. The most pioneering of these SEOs were just smart people, making use of the tools they found available and finding realistic ways real-world companies could start making money on the internet. 

And anyway, the conquistador analogy doesn’t quite hold. The big forums and other existing internet communities weren’t completely powerless when these SEOs arrived on their shores, they could have put up a real fight, but instead they just rolled over. The be-t-shirted community managers didn’t understand the SEOs, so came to fear them as they grew in power.

Following from this, tech companies have learned the lesson to fear the upstart and regard everyone who looks like they might be in the same space as a competitor to be destroyed (or bought, if you’re Salesforce). IBM didn’t see Apple coming, and learnt the hard way about Microsoft, so why should you trust anyone ever?!

“IBM didn’t see Apple coming, and learnt the hard way about Microsoft, so why should you trust anyone ever?!”

The thing is, the people doing all this SEO are actually quite nice. Top search marketing companies engage in a kind of collective love-in, where the heads of Moz, Distilled and their contemporaries, will speak at each other’s conferences, contribute to each other’s blogs, and generally get on like a house on fire.

SEOs don’t generally try to destroy each other because they know that they need each other. Link-building and later content marketing has meant companies share great ideas to boost interest from potential customers. They realised that if we’re all open, we can all survive.

“SEOs realised that if we’re all open, we can all survive”.

No one has put this into practice more, than Rand Fishkin of Moz, née SEOMoz.

Show me the money!

Rand Fishkin, founder and ex-CEO of Moz, and world-famous SEO expert, took this drive to an open company culture that he learned in SEO to admirable lengths. He posted a state of the company update on the blog that went viral (a keen content marketer is old Rand), with a complete history of how the company has been financed from the earliest days up until now and the plan for the future.

When you consider that many tech employees would struggle to name a single board member or major shareholder in their company (and this information is rarely volunteered to them), Rand has taken a pretty huge step. It’s one that many companies would struggle with, because their thinking is not even stuck on, ‘how would we make money from doing that?’ and ‘but what will people think of us if they know what we’re really like’ but instead ‘how do we stop anyone else from making money with that?’

This attitude to being fearlessly open reached the developer-led Stripe, who extended the thinking to the internal company culture.

Read your boss’s emails!

Stripe have complete email transparency. Every email at Stripe is CC-ed to lists that go either to the whole company or a particular team. The upshot? There’s no need for long-winded meetings to keep people in the loop. It’s up to each employee to keep abreast of the development stages of the different teams and know what the hell is going on at the place they work. In the words of Alex:

Other companies preach fearless communication. Stripe practices it.
 - Alex Maccaw, Stripe

Pretty cool, right? Alex is sure he has nothing to hide and he doesn’t want to waste valuable coding time getting everyone up to speed.

OK, so the examples of Stripe and Moz make for nice PR stories but might not be all that risky really, as they’re not volunteering where the company is right now, what the product road map is and how you plan to make loadsa money. Step forward, Buffer.

The trend is transparency

At the end of last year Joel Gascoigne, head of Buffer (who you can see speaking at the upcoming VIP VoIP #3), did something unusual for the CEO of a small, but growing, tech company. He published his quarterly update to investors on his company blog, so anyone could read it.

When researching this piece I asked the tech journalist Martin Weigert if he knew of any other start-ups with similar openness, he said he hadn’t, ‘not like that.’

While I agree with Martin, this is actually the most recent notable case of a trend for transparency that’s set to grow. It’s a trend which I’ve become borderline obsessed with and it’s one of the big reasons I wanted to come work at Makeshift and why I wanted this to be my first piece. 

Makeshift - letting it all hang out

I’ve just started at Makeshift, where co-founder Nick Marsh recently detailed the ‘12 fails of Christmas’ on his company blog, breaking down what went wrong and the rabbit holes Makeshift found itself going down trying to make their early ideas work. 

These kind of war stories are not completely new, you’ll often see ‘Why we pivoted’ blog posts, or the occasionally self congratulatory posts that look back on old naiveté from the comfort of a recently successful exit or valuation of the business. I’ve met founders who more or less think, ‘‘When we make it and we’re filthy rich, we’ll elaborate on how silly we were in the early days, but not now, oh no”.
Founders often think, ‘‘When we make it and we’re filthy rich, we’ll elaborate on how silly we were in the early days, but not now, oh no”.

What’s different with Nick’s articles is that Makeshift is using openness as an ethos from Day One, and the apps we’re building help the people that use them to benefit from being open.

The team at Makeshift were swapping links internally and wanted a better way to do it, so Linkydink was born. It made sense to make these links public so anyone that subscribes gets a bounty of interesting links at the end of the day. What was private is now public. 

At Makeshift we write a lot, and while content marketers will often pitch drafts internally, we went one further and put our content ideas out there to be voted on in Help Me Write, like a public Drafts folder; asking people ‘If I write this, would you want to read it?’

Makeshift also host regular Work In Progress nights, which put two fingers up to the idea of the non-disclosure agreement, as we show stuff we’re working on before it’s ready and encourage like-minded people to do the same. The benefits are obvious, as you get real-world feedback from other builders on features as you build them.

There are still many company HQs where smartphones are banned for visitors, lest they take pictures of Kanban boards, or tweet ideas they overhear. Makeshift is proud to go in the opposite direction and challenge other companies to do the same - to start building and growing in public. For my part, I’m going to help Makeshift build the tools to help you do so.

Photo Credit: ChaoticMind75 via Compfight