Behind the scenes #8: Anti-hardcore startup culture
...and also raw honesty of building in public and 2x-ing our engineering team!
In this issue
We love our “influencer” honesty raw, vegan, free-range and gluten-free. Read on to get a glimpse into our philosophy of “building in public.”
Doubled our engineering team! How did it affect our communication? It affected our comms overhead but less than we thought…
An anti-hardcore culture. Our approach to wellbeing at Metacast.
Latest podcast episodes.
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Behind the scenes, vol. 8
TLDR: We’re the team behind the podcast app Metacast. We’re in closed beta right now and are gearing up toward a public launch. Enter your email on our landing page metacast.app to receive an email when we launch (we won’t spam, we promise!)
This newsletter and our Behind the Scenes podcast is where we share our entrepreneurial journey with anyone who’s into storytelling about entrepreneurship and product development.
So, what have we been up to since the last newsletter?
We love our “influencer” honesty raw, vegan, free-range and gluten-free
Earlier this week, we received a few messages from people who listened to our interview on thewhere we opened up about things like disappointments from promotions to L7 at Amazon, leaving corporate careers, depression, psychotherapy, and ayahuasca…
“Love the raw honesty that you and Arnab approach building a new venture, thank you for sharing.”
In today’s world of social media influencers, it’s common to see people share stories of overcoming mental health issues, going broke, etc. that generate a lot of engagement from audiences. After all, everyone loves the classical hero’s journey ridden with challenges before they finally rise from ashes and rule the world.
We are taking a slightly different approach.
We have been sharing quite a bit of the ups and downs that led us to start doing what we love. We talked at length about chasing corporate careers only to be disappointed after getting the coveted promotion on episode 24 part 1 and 2.
But all of that was in the past.
We’re taking honesty a step further and building our startup “in public,” sharing our ongoing progress, learnings and failures. We’re not the first to do that — there are other founders who have done that before us, and we hope to inspire even more companies to openly share their journeys in newsletters, podcasts or on social media.
When you’ve “made it,” it’s easier to talk about the struggles that you’ve overcome. Talking about struggles as you’re going through them requires a next level of vulnerability.
We’ve not made it big yet. Gosh, we’ve not even launched our product (it’s in closed beta) and we’re a few months over the timeline we initially set for ourselves. This makes me feel a bit more vulnerable about sharing our journey.
The whole thing may not work out and burn in flames. Yet, we’ll have a raw record of what we’ve been doing.
And I like it more this way.
If we succeed, it’ll be so cool to look back at things as they were happening in the moment. There will be no sugar coating. Only raw product and business building stuff.
If we fail, no one will care about what we posted anyway.
I do believe that sharing our journey actually increases our chances of success. It helps us grow our network and attract people to the project.
If we succeed, our early success will be largely due to the “behind the scenes” story.
If we fail, we’ll recover sooner because there are many people rooting for us who can help us in dire times.
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Doubled our engineering team! How did it affect our communication?
We definitely see a boost in velocity. Jennie was a senior engineer at AWS and that shows. It took her about 1.5 weeks to ship a customer-facing feature in the framework she had not previously worked with. Not bad at all!
Now we have two major features in development in parallel. It’s a huge bump in velocity.
A selfish note — now that we have 2 engineers, I’ve felt less guilty not contributing much to code (I spent only 2-3 days coding in the last month) and focusing on content creation instead.
Despite the massive (all things are relative…) growth in headcount, we manage to keep just one recurring meeting on our calendar — a weekly sync on Fridays.
We have a running doc with notes and agenda items that we discuss one-by-one when we meet.
Every other week, we do a retro. We go through all pull requests, compile a list of improvements we did to the app, and use it to send a bi-weekly update to our closed beta users.
We have more ad-hoc meetings than we used to when Arnab (our CTO) was the only one coding. These days, Arnab and Jennie often pair using Tuple or in Google Meet to solve gnarly engineering problems.
The need for collaboration diminished our ability to keep two days a week (Tue & Thu) completely distraction-free. If engineers need help to be unblocked, they pair up and move forward. As the team gets more and more comfortable with Flutter, the frequency of pair programming should go down while the velocity will go up.
We’ve got a lot more going on in Slack now. It’s buzzing with activity.
Originally, we set up our Slack channel to be notification-less but we fell back into the good old “always-on” pattern. We did so intentionally for the period of Jennie’s onboarding but never revisited going back to a truly asynchronous chat.
An anti-hardcore culture
We received an email from one of our podcast listeners titled “Metacast vs "hardcore" culture :P” that shared some great points and ended with this:
Can empathy-driven teams beat "hardcore" teams?
It got me thinking.
I’ve recently finished Elon Musk’s biography by Walter Isaacson where “hardcore” is a commonly referenced word. It means a work style when people work around the clock with fanatical zealousness. So let’s use this is a definition of “hardcore.”
My take on the question is that “performance” has to be defined too. Can empathy-driven teams beat hardcore teams in what way?
Purely on quantitative ROI, hardcore teams with a strong authoritarian leader will outperform everyone else. Think Bezos, Musk, Jobs, Gates. Their companies are crazy successful by society’s standards and the halo effect makes all their employees appear successful on the outside as well.
But are those people happy? Maybe, I can’t judge. I just know I won’t be happy doing “hardcore” 6-to-midnight days and living in constant fear of not being good enough.
If you make wellbeing a goal, you can be happy with lower “performance” by traditional measures but have a great lifestyle. Think folks like Jason Fried and millions of small business owners who built “lifestyle businesses” (shame on them for not wanting to be a unicorn!)
They don't send people to Mars and don’t make huge dents in their industries. People who work for them are also fairly “invisible.” But these people do get to see their families and enjoy day-to-day moments in life.
Is this success?
Heck yeah by my standards — work is not everything there is. Work is a means, not the end.
We’ve set out to build a calm company, which means we’re “anti-hardcore” (alas, “softcore” is a term from the adult industry and cannot be used in this context…)
This probably means that if a hardcore team were to enter the same niche and copy what we did, they would out-engineer and out-go-to-market us. But it’s good for Metacast that hardcore teams usually set their eyes on much larger, less defined markets with a huge reward-to-risk ratio. They want to “disrupt,” be the “next Google,” etc. Most end up in the startup graveyard anyway but that’s beside the point.
We do not expect to be a $1B company. We didn’t take VC funding that would make us work like dogs until we hit revenue expectations and provide our investors an exit. We didn’t leave grueling jobs to build another sweatshop of our own making. Instead, we want to build a business that will provide us with resources to live our lives to the fullest.
We don’t think working 16-hour days, 7-day weeks, and vacationless years is a virtue. We also don’t think building a “real company” is necessarily a goal. In some way it’s an anti-goal for us.
We want to do things differently. Less process, less BS, more empathy.
One of the most humiliating experiences at a big company is counting your vacation days and making sure you don’t go over the limit. Some folks are so careful optimizing their vacations that they never take any and end up accruing lots of days until they hit the cap.
I’ve always used up all my vacation days. I think it’s irresponsible not to. You owe it to yourself and your family.
I had my 40th birthday recently. I took a day off to spend some quality time with my family and take care of myself. Later that week, we were also discussing Christmas plans among the three of us and it dawned on me that we need a timeoff policy.
Our policy will evolve organically but that’s what we settled on for now:
We’ll all take big holidays off, starting with the Christmas week this year. If anyone wants to work (founders never really unplug), it’s fine but there’s no expectation of being available unless something bad happens.
We’re all free to take guilt-free days off for our birthdays and birthdays of our immediate family. This is such an obvious thing and I wish more companies had policies that allowed that.
A fair post-scriptum here is that we don’t have a product in production yet, we’re not making any money, and no one draws any salary from the company. We all own equity of a company and our incentives are aligned. We’re all committed to the product and to the business. There’s no incentive for any of us to abuse the policy (unlike in big companies).
Once we launch, I think work will get a little more intense until we find product-market-fit and establish a steady stream of revenue. But we want to keep our culture as calm as possible from the very beginning.
If you were one of the people who downloaded the book, we’ll highly appreciate a review.
Latest podcast episodes
Ep. 42: Equity compensation at a pre-revenue bootstrapped startup with Metacast employee #1 Jennie Buechner
Jennie Buechner is a Senior Software Engineer and the first hire at Metacast. We discussed leaving Amazon to join an early stage startup and how we thought about equity compensation when we can't afford to pay a salary yet.
Metacast Ep. 43: Becoming social media influencers (but not LinkedIn Lunatics)
Arnab and Ilya reminisce about their first social media experiences with ICQ and Orkut, discuss fixing X-Twitter, read an eulogy for Threads, and strategize about becoming social media influencers.
Coming up next
Episode 44 (next week) is going to be with Dave Thomas, co-author of The Pragmatic Programmer and the Agile Manifesto! Follow Metacast: Behind the scenes wherever you listen to podcasts (links here).
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