Peter’s notes from the company offsite in February 2020 in Spain. These are his thoughts on building a company and the company culture, as well as summary of what AppAgent did wrong when it came to hiring last year, why we are often inviting family members to company events or – in contrast – why we wouldn’t hire someone for a full-time remote position.
Day 1 / Why I’m not in the office
February 1, 2020
Two years ago, my whole family got terribly sick with the classic winter flu and it took almost a month to recover. It decimated our bodies and minds, as well as our wallet. Soon after we recovered, my wife Iva and I decided to do anything to avoid such terrible experience in the next years.
The following year, we escaped the winter and flu epidemic in Marbella, Spain not only as a family but also as a company. A few colleagues with their kids opened a remote office for two weeks to test if we could operate remotely. Productivity wasn’t harmed while the life quality was fantastic.
This year we’re back again, in a villa for 15 people. AppAgent is paying 70% of the accommodation costs while people cover the rest (because I believe that people don’t value what’s for free). Besides work, we have a list of nice trips so I’m sure it will be a great mix of work & leisure once again.
Day 2 / Remote work has its limitations
February 2, 2020
I started AppAgent as a freelancer working with other contractors before I founded the company 3 years ago. It was Sebastien Pacetti who inspired me with a simple question: “Why don’t you leverage local affordable talent and build a team that will grow together?”
As a keen traveler, I was attracted by the idea of working from everywhere. However, the business vision was to build an excellent growth team with diverse skills. Since then, I have seen just how the collaborative culture and proximity has created great outcomes that wouldn’t be possible if we were all working remotely. Knowing the context which is shared verbally during meetings, being able to see emotions and better understanding the nuances of communication helps the work efficiency.
I simply realized that full-time remote work isn’t right for us, at least at this stage of the company and for the key roles in the team. The Marketing Manager who connects different experts, leads the team who trains and supports others or the creative director who communicates 100x daily with designers won’t be effective remotely.
It’s not black and white, so we support these types of remote work:
- 1 day a week to easily achieve deep thought in isolation
- 0.5 day for collaborative sessions outside of the company
- expats can work 2 weeks a year from their country of origin
- home office in case you can’t come to the office for a specific reason
- the “Winter Escape” of the company to a remote office
Day 3 / Doing business smart
February 3, 2020
Gary Vee yells at you to hustle hard. Ryan Ogle (ex-CTO at Tinder) works 7 days a week. The whole startup world is embracing working non-stop and growing like it’s on steroids. Fu** this, I’m too old for that!
I want to do business smart, set strong foundations, hire only the best people – simply be picky! And you can’t be picky on a crazy rollercoaster after working day and night, that simply doesn’t work. At AppAgent, we want a long-lasting sustainable business with happy employees and to serve clients well.
To do so, you have to keep things in balance and create conditions where people feel safe, focused and can perform their best. After having a VC funded startup previously, I decided to avoid the pressure connected with external money and setting crazy high goals. We’re happy with growing revenues by 57% in 2019 while keeping a healthy profit. We’re fine with a slower growth rate compared to other businesses around because once you look inside those, you often hear how messy, chaotic and stressful working in those companies really are.
I’m not saying we take it easy peasy as there are targets, intense days and sometimes even nights. However, it’s about pushing hard one day and taking a rest the next day. About treating your own employees as priority number one (yes, even ahead of clients) because only then your employees reject job offerings in exchange of building the business long-term with other like-minded people.
And it’s great to see in numbers that doing business smart works for us. When I asked everyone at AppAgent last week “How likely would you recommend AppAgent as a place to work?”, the NPS score given was an astonishing 9.53 out of 10! What else as a founder could I wish for?
Day 4 / Not all meetings are toxic
February 4, 2020
According to an article in MIT’s Sloan Management Review, the average executive spends 23 hours a week in meetings, that’s half of the work week!
On the other hand, meeting with a purpose, clear agenda and goal is often the best way to resolve complex problems and generate new ideas that exceed individual creative capacity.
Luckily, I have to say that at AppAgent useless meetings rarely happen and we almost always finish on time. With so many productivity freaks onboard, people simply don’t let the meeting go sideways.
Here are a few things that work for us:
- each meeting has an owner who sets the agenda, goal and is responsible for managing the meeting
- if possible, we share the agenda in the calendar invite (ideally with support materials)
- the standard meeting duration is 30 mins, the owner needs to justify a longer duration to avoid rejections
- if the duration is longer, we have dedicated blocks with allocated time per each part of the program
- people who don’t have to be present for the whole session leave once their role is fulfilled
- we review if regular meetings can’t be shortened (the weekly status dropped from 50 mins to 25 in the past year
Day 5 / The importance of deep work
February 5, 2020
Fragmented attention is my big problem. I used to believe that as a CEO I should always be available for my team so they can work frictionless. This resulted in dozens of requests a day and in a constant reactive mode.
With a growing business, I realized this was the way to hell. It felt like when you are running in the woods and only looking a few steps ahead. Then I realised the CEO role is about setting the direction, the operational framework and hiring the right people who will figure out the rest.
Last year I put quite a lot into building these foundations and I started with myself. First, I turned off all notifications. Then, on Tuesdays I work from home, avoiding calls and interactions with the team to dive into the real “deep work”. Recently, we launched a “Board Meeting” with my right hand man Martin Jelinek every Thursday where we focus on big tasks in a company completely disconnected from colleagues. I schedule calls with our or potential clients only on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday’s. This leaves me more space for quality work before lunch. Finally, I took 3 weeks of vacation for the first time since my honeymoon in 2009 to force the team to resolve their needs on their own. And guess what, it works!
There’s a lot I can still do better but it motivates me when I achieve something great thanks to the high concentration.
Day 6 – The new normal
February 6, 2020
One chapter in the book “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work” stood out to me. It’s about creepy events and behaviour which you don’t like but tolerate at first. Then someone else follows suit and soon it’s too late as the behaviour becomes the new normal.
As a CEO you have zillions of things on your desk. From setting the long-term strategy, over hiring, to finances… and a ton of tiny little tasks in between. It’s easy to miss warning signals or not to react immediately due to other more urgent duties. However, it is a CEO’s responsibility for setting the culture and defining what’s right and what isn’t.
There were moments at AppAgent when someone talked badly about a client, when the owner of a task threw the responsibility for a mistake at a colleague, when low attention to detail resulted in bad results. Naturally, it feels terribly uncomfortable to directly address what just happened and even more to articulate it publicly to everyone in the company to put things back on track.
Since reading this chapter, I have become more sensitive to the seeds planted and it gives me more courage to step in sooner rather than later. Culture is what culture does, it’s what you do.
Day 7 / FOMO in hiring
February 7, 2020
I remember telling my wife how afraid I am to see the first employee leaving the company. That was 2 years ago. Since then a few colleagues left without breaking my heart. Luckily, it was a nice farewell with everyone. I learned a company is like a sports club – players come and go and what makes e.g. FC Barcelona great are systems, coaches, culture and shared passion.
But to the hiring process. It’s shocking to see how many “lead” level marketers are on the junior level by our measures – we figured out that 90% of CVs are simply exaggerated. So, we put an emphasis on quick tasks during the interview, case studies and practical tests during the hiring process. We look for minds demonstrating the ability to understand the principles, explain them well and mostly to be able to quickly adopt new learnings.
One rule we follow is “The work will show”. We prefer project-based cooperation first or at least 1-5 days at a company to see candidates in action. Such a test also unveils the culture fit. At the end of the day, the team has to be afraid of missing out on the perfect candidate by putting an offer out on the table. As Aaron Levine, CEO of Box.com, says on hiring: “Could this person be a founding team member? If yes, hire. If not, reject!”
Day 8 / Is work-life balance achievable?
February 8, 2020
In the agency world, there’s either too much work or too little but never just right. It’s the nature of the business that often negatively impacts the working hours and level of stress. We try to fight this aspect and my thoughts below might apply to everyone who feels pressure at work.
1. One should understand that today’s work in mobile isn’t about a constant push and the same level of effort (e.g. the pre-production stage vs. global launch). So, why insist on a 9 to 5 job and not let people take more free time when it’s possible so you can ask them to push hard when it’s needed?
2. Everyone has a different working rhythm. AppAgent’s creative director Richard starts quite early to have undisturbed deep work in the morning. I can work anywhere but I write only at night. If someone has a call with a client in San Francisco or Vancouver at 8 pm, it’s not necessary to start at 9 am the next day.
3. With growing numbers of parents, we invite partners and kids for our “Funday Thursday’s” or “Winter Escapes”. It also means we aren’t stealing precious time with the loved ones and still can spend time together outside of working hours.
It’s a few little things that help achieve balance and it costs nothing.
Day 9 / Learning through conversation
February 9, 2020
Recently, we finished a new ad for our client Babbel with the headline “Learning through conversation”. Seeing the video, I realised it perfectly describes how I learn the best – by talking to experts, mentors and coaches. Let me outline why this works well for me and how I find such people.
The reason why conversation seems like the best option is because I can dig deeper into the topic by asking experts for more details, clarification and reasoning. As you might have experienced by yourself, often one question triggers many more – if you read a book or watch a video, you can’t follow up. Through conversation you can go into detail, better understand the way of thinking about a specific topic and even challenge the partner during a conversation.
How do I find such people? It might be surprising but often it’s by reading or watching videos in addition to simply following the content thought leaders produce. And what’s even better, through the network as personal recommendations work always the best. As for reaching out, I have a proper brief covering why I need a mentor or advisor, what are my goals, how often we should get in touch and how I expect to cooperate. Often such preparation left a good enough impression to win the attention of top business coaches.
I’m always transparent as I prefer to test the cooperation first as to the chemistry which is an absolute must if I want to work closely with someone new. Luckily, experienced professionals see it the same way and they are happy to give it a non-binding shot. For each session, an agenda shared in advance helps to address the most important topics and to be effective. This is definitely worth it especially once you pay a hefty fee. However, I have to admit I never regret the money I had to pay for consultations as often one idea fundamentally changed my understanding of things or identified the wrong direction I was about to take. Often, the clarity you get from one hour of conversation is worth thousands of dollars.
I would like to thank the people who influenced me a lot in the past several years and I hope this post might help you overcome the initial friction and ask the best ones for advice. I’m really glad to have you around, Petr Zidek (life & business), Roman Stupka (business strategy), Thomas Petit (mobile marketing strategy), Jan Mares (finance) and Martin Soucek (operations, HR).
Day 10 – Get out into the woods
February 10, 2020
There are three things that bring you a lot more peace and happiness than money ever will. Naval Ravikant, the founder of Angelist and famous “tweet-stormer”, thinks those are your physical health, your mental health, and your close relationships – as well as their cultivation.
Let me share some thoughts about physical health. Sport has been an instrumental part of my life and career. Not only have I been a competitive athlete since I was 9 years old, but I’ve learned how to go from being a noob to being a champion. Today, years after I stopped chasing medals, sport is the best way to remove stress and sort my thoughts out after a busy day – out in the woods, alone, far from anything digital. There’s not a single run or bike ride that doesn’t result in me coming up with a new idea for the business. Things simply click together when I unwind.
Last year I was off for months due to a muscle injury and I realized during this time how negatively impacted I was when I stopped my regular training routine which takes place mostly in the woods. Later Cal Newport explained to me in the book Deep Work that our brain “formatting” is best suited for humans when we are in nature.
If you feel like your head is buzzing, my advice is to get out for a run in the woods and leave everything behind.
8 tips on how to survive a remote office (successfully)
- We managed to work between 6-8 hours a day. As the sunset was around 7:15 pm, we were still able to enjoy the beautiful surroundings after work. Colleagues who didn’t manage to work full-time took holiday (eg. 2 days representing part-time work for the whole stay).
- Being out of the office offers great conditions for bigger tasks and deeper discussions. I did a full-day work workshop with Thomas Petit, where we managed to onboard our new team member Lucia or even push forward our Ad Creatives Production loop. I highly recommend using the time offsite for such sessions, even the biggest tasks are easier to crack when you’re on the beach.
Calls with clients
- Easily manageable all day long with a good 100Mb/s internet (good to ask the host for a screenshot from Speedtest.net before booking any villa). The only thing is we had to have the calls in our bedrooms as we didn’t have any spare room with doors. A room for improvement next year.
- Every team member cooked for themselves, while we sometimes prepared dinner for all of us (thanks Katka for those yummy pancakes). Sometimes, it required scheduled shifts in the kitchen but it was easily manageable.
- With more than half of the team being parents, we decided already a year ago to offer a winter escape to all families. However, it’s good to have partners who take care of the “household” and the kids if you want to work full-time. If not, this needs to be clearly articulated and compensated by taking your vacation days (or send the kids to a language school as we did).
- As we had 4 small kids in the villa, there were no parties. I recommend to be very clear about this as with younger employees this can easily get out of control. If people get wasted, they should take a vacation the following day.
- We created a backlog of trips for weekends and Wednesday afternoons where we booked trips such as to Caminito del Rey. People were free to join for group trips or to enjoy the time on their own which turned out to work well.
- This year AppAgent paid 80% of the accommodation costs and team members covered flights, car rental and food. This reflected the fact that we combined work and leisure while I strongly believe making a small financial contribution makes people appreciate things a little more.
Lastly, thanks to all of the “agents” for a fantastic time as I believe it all worked like a charm!