In many business circles this question would be treated as a joke. “Of course you should manage for rocket-ship growth!” As company founders (and product managers) we’re often force-fed a rigorous diet of high expectations.
We’re submerged in success stories involving double digit month-on-month growth and neon headlines: “How Slack Became the Fastest Growing B2B SaaS Business (Maybe) Ever”. And we’re expected to approve. To try and imitate.
Business success, particularly in the tech world, is about being the fastest growing, biggest company. Not necessarily the most profitable, or even profitable at all. But the most ambitious company, where customer growth rockets upwards (for now).
And so, according to this attitude, it’s our job as founders and product managers to make this happen.
Should you always plan for rocket-ship growth?
Ambition is everything
Well, that’s not how we see it. Do you know how we begin our monthly meetings? With a reminder that Feature Upvote is a low-stress company. This has been company policy right from the beginning. Steve McLeod, our founder, says:
I don’t want endless ambition to drive our company. Endless ambition leads to endless exhaustion. Exhaustion doesn’t benefit our team, it doesn’t benefit our customers, and it doesn’t benefit our families.
Being content with modest growth allows our team to maintain a healthy balance between work and everything else in their life. It assures us - and our customers - that our company is stable and healthy and will be around for many years.
With Mental Health Awareness week just past, we’re reminded yet again of the need to take care of ourselves and each other. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 1 in 13 globally suffers from anxiety. As Eli Montgomery and Martin Eriksson write in an article on mental health: “Long hours, isolation, and stress in tech make all of these struggles especially pervasive in tech companies”.
In a recent article, Judith Shulevitz argues that “Our unpredictable and overburdened schedules are taking a dire toll on society,” – and on ourselves.
If your company is inherently high octane then it’s likely that many people in your team will be overworked, stressed and anxious too. A few office benefits like ping pong tables and yoga classes will rarely be enough to combat a culture of stress and endless expectation that can quickly turn toxic. Who is to blame for the latest product launch flop (at least we failed fast)? Should she be working here if she is not going to give 110% (because of her kids)? Why is he such a slow worker - he’s useless (but depressed).
To an extent, software, training, mentorships and better processes can reduce stress and work overload. So can raised awareness of mental health problems and their ubiquity. None of these are ‘the solution’ though, despite being often held up as one. For that, you need a fundamentally different approach.
A new measure of success
At Feature Upvote we focus on something besides growth: our work-life balance (and profit: we quite like that too). For us, this is an important measure of the success of our company. It’s right up there with Monthly Recurring Revenue (MRR) and New Customers Added.
We appreciate that this is unusual. Perhaps it seems utopian. We’re a business right, not a charity or social club?
However, business is about thinking creatively. And if you can do that about your product why not step back and look at the big picture as well? What does it mean to run a successful business? What does this look like for every member of your team? Do we really need to rule the world (while often losing money)?
For us, we realised success means running a growing company (profitable with customers in 30+ countries) that we enjoy working for but doesn’t dominate our lives. We want to have time for friends, families and fun, and to make sure work doesn’t negatively impact how we feel while at work or elsewhere. To achieve this level of ‘success’ we offer all team members:
- Shorter hours if needed
- Flexible hours, as far as possible
- Remote working
- Considerate acceptance that stuff happens and team members shouldn’t be blamed for not being ‘tough enough’ to keep going regardless
This policy requires some fast thinking at times, and an acceptance that it may impact growth. We need to rigidly focus on what we can do in the time available. Monthly meetings, for example, are restricted to 30 minutes. We have stringent criteria for building new features and creating new content. We decide not to attempt more than is realistic given the size of our team.
It’s not always easy. Wildbit, for example, have written very well on the problems and advantages of trying out a 4 day work week. You don’t move away from the status quo without repercussions.
For us the advantages of having a good work life balance far outweigh the disadvantages. Knowing that we can see our kids grow up, be there if they are ill, or entertain family for a week visiting from another country, all makes us happier more productive people.
Feature Upvote continues to grow: but gently, rather than with the burning acceleration of a rocketship.
Product managing for low stress
It’s rarely enough to decide ‘I want our team to have a good work-life balance’ and try and set up some kind of flexible working or shorter hours. If you work at a company where high growth is idolised, you soon get push back: from managers intent on 20% growth month-on-month or investors insisting on a hefty return on their capital.
To actually become a lower stress company, you need to step away from a growth at all costs mentality. Instead of your entire company being aligned around output or outcomes you need to align it around your people.
But what does this even mean? We’ve decided on a few fundamentals that guide all our business decisions:
- We remain self-funded, so we can concentrate on our customers rather than satisfying the high growth expectations of investors. This is essential, unless you can find some very special investors.
- We pursue slower-burn marketing strategies (like SEO content) and generally avoid anything that requires an ongoing daily time commitment.
- We make our product as self-service as possible, so we don’t need to be on hand to demo the product for customers and answer tons of questions.
- We aim for achievable rather than ambitious growth. There is no pressure to achieve double-digit growth every month.
- We get pretty comfortable about saying ‘no, we can’t do that’. We don’t enjoy saying this, but we make sure we do say it when necessary.
We know this approach isn’t for everyone. It might feel too radical, or too naive. What’s funny though, is that we don’t feel all that radical or naive. We’re pretty normal people.
What we do share, though, is a belief that there is a huge amount of BS talked about business, tech, and success, and that we should decide ourselves what’s important – and what isn’t.
Were humans harmed in the making of your product?
We love our product – online feedback boards with in-built voting functionality – and know they help make our customers’ lives easier. They can lead to increased transparency and collaboration within companies, as well as time saved processing feedback. All good things.
However, we openly acknowledge that our product isn’t important enough for us to get super stressed about. Our world won’t collapse if our company ‘only’ grows by 3% in one month or our churn rate peaks above 5%.
Our world might collapse, however, if we ignore ourselves, our friends and our families because of work and how it makes us feel.
Few, if any, tech products are worth the human cost of creating them in a damaging, stressful environment. We know Feature Upvote isn’t.