Cultivating Transparency in a High-Growth Startup

November 7, 2022
Mike Pappas
(HE/HIM/HIS)

There are plenty of organizations out there filled with amazing people who are passionate about their mission…but which struggle, day after day, to actually achieve anything. On the flip side, startups have a reputation for punching far above their weight class by pulling out new products or business strategies with a rhythm that, conventional wisdom goes, can’t possibly be kept up as the company grows.

Why is that?

The simple answer is that everyone at a smaller company knows each other, so can work together more seamlessly. But this is really a special case of a larger principle: organizations that work best are those where everyone knows what they can expect from everyone else.

Certainly one way to achieve this is to remain small enough that everyone has individual, personal relationships with each of their colleagues; but this approach is impossible for a growth-stage company to keep up. But it’s not the only way.

Modulate’s culture was designed from the very beginning to reap the benefits of seamless collaboration no matter how large our team grows. And over the last few months, as we’ve more than doubled in size from 15 to 32 team members, our ideas have been put to the test - and we’ve passed with flying colors. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the Modulate team feels more cohesive today than ever before!

What’s our secret? Well, it’s simultaneously the easiest thing in the world and also a near-insurmountably difficult task:

You just have to be transparent with each other.

Think back to that idea of “knowing every employee directly makes things work seamlessly.” Why is that? The answer is that everyone has their own background, mental wiring, skillset, workflow, personality and speech style, etc. In order to interact smoothly with someone, it’s crucial to understand where they are coming from so you can meet in the middle.

But what if, instead of all that info being locked behind building a personal relationship, it was just there on the surface?

This is the approach that is built deep into Modulate’s DNA, at three key levels.

Level 1: Setting the Foundation

If you’ve been to Modulate’s culture page, you’ve seen that we talk pretty frankly about our values and culture. We do that a lot - not just online, but in interviews, in regular bi-weekly team discussions, and constantly through channels like Slack and lunchtime conversations. The point of all this is to give everyone a clear understanding of what they can and should expect of their colleagues.

Want to give someone feedback, but unsure if they’ll be offended rather than appreciative of your efforts to help? That’s why we:

  • Specifically test each applicant for their ability and desire to hear meaningful feedback during the interview process
  • Re-test and coach new hires during onboarding around giving good feedback
  • Continuously support employees with additional feedback training and tools as they grow within the company. 

By the time you are working with a new Modulate colleague, there’s no mystery about whether they’ll appreciate well-intentioned feedback, even if it’s delivered clumsily; we’ve done the work to prove the answer already.

Similarly, worried about the ethical implications of a new feature we’re delivering, but unclear on how to explain those concerns to your manager? This is also built into our culture; anyone at Modulate is the sort of person who’d rather the company not succeed than for it to become a place they’d be ashamed to admit they work at. You don’t need to prepare a pitch for why ethics impacts the bottom line; just share your concern knowing that we’ll take it seriously.

This kind of consistent foundation-setting is vital, because it establishes the trust that’s a prerequisite to getting to know anyone more deeply. But Modulate also deeply values diversity in all its forms, so there’s a bit of a tradeoff here - this foundation should spell out the things that we really do want everyone to be totally the same on, but it’s important that leaves a ton of room for folks to also differ in a lot of ways. So how do you make sure that kind of diversity remains welcome?

Layer 2: Celebrate Diversity

People vary in ways large and small, and Modulate wants everyone who shares our foundational values to be able to flourish here. But diversity inherently means it’s harder for folks to guess what their colleagues want or need, since there are so many different possible answers! Modulate combats this using tools that bring this diversity to the forefront, and give us a chance to directly celebrate it.

This includes some conventional best practices, such as DEIB discussions amongst the team and recognition of holidays from a variety of cultures, but it also includes some more unique approaches. For instance, Modulate’s “Dex” is a tool where each employee configures a profile promptly after joining the team. This profile asks folks to share things like the degree to which they are interested in melding their social + work life vs keeping clear boundaries; how much they prefer concrete feedback and suggestions versus more abstract + nuanced discussions of how to generally solve problems; and a variety of other dimensions along which our team varies. 

We believe a tool like Dex is invaluable, not just for the insight it provides us about our colleagues, but for the fact that it normalizes their right to be different. When you join a company and see an option you are allowed to check that says things like “please don’t bother me outside work hours” or “I will probably be quiet in meetings unless you call on me” makes clear that Modulate is accepting of folks across these ranges of behaviors, in a way that might be much harder to rely upon just from watching how a few nearby employees interact with each other.

Layer 3: Unlock Comparative Advantages

Once you have a team with a shared foundation and a diversity of skills and perspectives, you need to make sure folks can put their capabilities to work in the areas they’ll have the most potent impact. And as you grow your team, you’ll need to consider an increase in specialization. This often results in new sub-teams within the larger organization, each with distinct elements of culture that work for them, that also need to be able to interface with the other teams and sub-teams around them.

So the final layer of this strategy is to have clear interfaces between teams. Put together a consistent structure to answer questions like:

  • “What context does the QA team need in order to test a new feature?” 
  • “Where should the sales team get their source of truth for new feature timelines to tell customers?”
  • “How does a new developer request a more ergonomic chair?” 

This can feel process-heavy at smaller companies, but Modulate is living proof that the up-front cost can be worth it. Thanks to setting clear interfaces between what were recently single-person teams, we were able to grow each of those teams individually without missing a beat, adding each new team member into the appropriate place in our existing flow.

Of course, these processes can and do continue to evolve over time. Another benefit of Modulate’s focus on transparency is that not only can everyone easily follow each process, they can also proactively share their feedback about ways to improve them!

Putting it all together

Modulate’s not done growing yet - we expect that by the end of the year we’ll have nearly tripled from our original size (check out our open roles)! This is one of the most exciting times for any startup, as well as one of the most precarious - growing too quickly in a company without a clear culture produces fractures, confusion, and ultimately debilitatingly decreased speed of innovation.

And yet, thanks to Modulate’s consistent emphasis on transparency, we’ve been able to dodge those pitfalls, and continue accelerating the growth of both our team and our business during one of the toughest economic times in recent memory. It’s not rocket science or dark magic. It’s just a commitment, every day, with each of our colleagues, to always be honest, up-front, and thoughtful with each other. 

It might sound easy. It might sound impossible. All I can tell you is that at Modulate, it’s happening, and I’m truly looking forward to seeing what our amazing and growing team is able to pull off next.

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