Max Webster, Cofounder of NikoNiko tells us about positive psychology and how important happiness is to productivity. He tells us about his startup called NikoNiko (which means smiley in Japanese), and how it lets companies measure happiness.
Jacob: Hello everyone, I’m Jacob Shriar, Growth Manager at Officevibe, and today I’m joined by Max Webster, the cofounder and CEO of Niko Niko which is a very cool employee mood tracking application, is that how I can describe that?
Max: Yeah, that’s right.
Jacob: Very, very cool. So tell me a little bit about Niko Niko. What exactly does it do? Why would anyone need something like that?
Max: Absolutely, our goal is to make tracking the mood of your teams, whether that’s in a large company or a small organization as easy as possible. Most companies are focused on building their culture to improve employee performance, improve employee retention and sort of the back mode of that is the sort of annual employee surveys that they do. Our feeling is that you can only optimize what you measure and you can only optimize it based on how frequently you measure it. So we want to make it as easy and painless as possible to get polls on how your team feels everyday or every week, as frequently as you want to do that.
Jacob: So is it every day, is it really ad-hoc, whenever someone’s feeling happy, they just on the app, or is there a weekly check in or daily, how does that work?
Max: Totally. So I’ll just take one step back. Niko Niko is more than just an app. We are an entire mood tracking platform. So the way it works is, if you are a team leader or a manager, make it really easy for you to set up your own account where you can either use questions that you and your team want to ask, or you can use questions that we’ve worked with positive psychologists from Yale University from Google, from Wharton, to figure out what sort of metrics you’re trying to track with your team and then you can ask those questions at scheduled intervals. So we can make it easy for you to ping your employees every Monday at 2 PM for example, or they can also come and answer a question anytime over a web app if they want. The idea is flexibility to meet your needs as a team leader.
Jacob: So from what I understand, Niko Niko, or the word Niko literally means smiley, is that correct?
Max: That’s right, it’s onomatopoeia for smiling in Japanese and it also has a fun ring to it which is one of the reasons we chose it.
Jacob: And it’s actually, I just learned recently that it’s based on an agile methodology, I think most people are used to, we might say more traditional agile methods like scrum and Kanban, but I just found out that last night that Niko was an actual method or way of tracking the project. Can you talk a little bit about that and how Niko relates to agile?
Max: Yeah, absolutely. So it’s been a common practice for agile coaches to get a quick pulse out on the team field. So when they’re tracking, they have a set of metrics from velocity to whatever is important to them, they want to know how people are feeling very quickly. So the way they would do this in the old days is with the Niko Niko calendar.
People would take maybe pieces of parchment paper, put it up on a wall, partition it into 30 days or however many days they’re tracking and then everyday each member of the team would go to the wall, put either a frowny face, a sort of neutral face or smiley face or some variant of those and then at the end of whatever period they’re tracking, the team lead would take all that information, collect it together and then discuss it with his or her team and to figure out what’s going well and then compare that information to the other metrics they’re tracking.
So folks are feeling down this week, and as a result, our production velocity is also on the decline, there’s probably a connection there, let’s try to figure out what it is. So we were inspired by that methodology and excited to bring into the 21st century, via the internet so that anyone can use it whether you’re in a distributed team, a very large organization that can’t all come to the same piece of parchment paper on the wall and we’re always excited when we can take something that works in analogue and bring it into digital.
Jacob: Yeah, that’s interesting. So traditionally, in agile, I think I’ve seen used what’s called a Burn Chart where you kind of look at features, you see how they’re burning down over time they’re getting closer and closer to the end of the project, but it’s interesting to instead of tracking features and how they’re burning down, to track mood and see if everyone is happy and everyone’s sad, how the project is going. That’s actually interesting.
You mentioned something before though that I want to spend a few minutes on, it’s very important. You said positive psychology and I want to take a few minutes and talk about that. I know that the platform is largely based on some of the theories behind positive psychology. Can you take a few minutes and talk a bit about positive psychology, why it’s important, things like that?
Max: Absolutely. So traditional, sort of psychology in an organization — psychology, you’re looking at how you can take something that is abnormal or has some sort of problem and how you can bring it back to normal. Well positive psychology sort of revolution was sort of the key to a lot of different people but Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania was sort of the recognized leader of this movement.
The idea is a very simple one: instead of just looking to return people to your baseline, how can we take folks who are already at that baseline and how can me make them excel and make them either happier or more fulfilled folks in the process?
So positive psychology is all about taking people and making them even better than their set lines. And that’s something that I think is really exciting in the 21st century, we have a lot of the evidence demonstrating some very simple areas where people can do this and now it’s just about getting that information distributed, getting the simple sort of engagement areas and activities out there so folks can take advantage of the research.
Jacob: So at NikoNiko, you guys are obviously passionate about promoting employee engagement, the company culture, things like that, I’m curious about what the culture is like at your place. What do you guys do? What kind of initiatives do you have running at NikoNiko?
Max: Well we’re a very hardness place, we like to crack the whip on our employees, no, I’m playing with you. We are much like Officevibe, very much a start up. So we have a team right now of about eight folks, there’s four of us working, it’s a distributed team which is an interesting use case for Niko Niko as a product as well.
There’s about four of us working state side, about four of us working in Europe as well and our whole, I guess what’s interesting is that very few companies get to use their own product to help build their own company culture and from the very beginning, we built Niko Niko to solve a need. So Chris, my cofounder, he’s managed a large student and software team for about a decade. He was always finding that folks were perhaps not performing at their optimal level, maybe someone quit and didn’t know why and because he wasn’t there every day, he wanted a really quick and easy way just to get a feel kind of using the Niko Niko calendar but he couldn’t be there in person to see how folks were feeling. So when he first got this idea, he wanted to build this product for his own software team.
Now fast forward to a couple of months ago, for me and I’m happy to go more in depth in this later if you’d like, but I’m interested in sort of well-being metrics from a 20,000 foot view, looking at how society can better hit the metrics that it wants to track and optimize so it’s straight production to consumption, to well-being, so when I was talking with him, that was kind of the angle that I came at it from and I think both of our interests and needs are well reflecting the culture at Niko Niko.
We use our own product every day to ask how folks are feeling about projects they’re working on, to ask how they’re feeling about their relationships they’re forming both inside and outside the company. Then we also try to talk about a lot of, in addition to the day to day sales and tasks we’re focusing on, what our big picture vision is for changing the world.
And for us, that really comes down to that idea of establishing metrics of well-being that help everyone, whether it’s an organization or a country, be able to track metrics and make them work. And I think that trying to focus on both the day to day engagement of making folks happy as well as our big picture is what drives this company.
Jacob: That makes a lot of sense.
Yeah, I’d love for you to go more into detail into what you were just talking about. I’m sure you’ve seen the statistics about employee engagement, I mean, there are so many people out there, like literally, so many who just hate their job and just have a terrible work experience. So it’s a bold mission that you’re on, but I think it’s necessary and I think there’s obviously a huge opportunity. So if you want to take a few minutes and just talk a bit more, go into some more detail of what you were just talking about.
Max: Yeah, absolutely, so I’ll go on two levels. One just sort of the well-being metrics in general which move beyond organizations into we’ll go specifically into that question on how we can help organizations or maybe folks who don’t like their jobs.
So the first is there’s been a movement over the last several decades to measure essentially metrics beyond straight production consumption. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the country of Bhutan, they’re kind of the famous Buddhist country, they’re nestled in-between India and China, and they’re famous for tracking GNH versus national happiness. They were sort of the first country who got a lot of attention for doing this and they essentially minister various surveys to their own populace to get a better sense on people’s subjective feeling or subjective well-being in addition to just how much they’re producing or consuming as a country.
This idea although seemed a little radical at first, has been slowly but surely adopted throughout the world or is going with that process. So England and France both have conditions to track their own versions of GNH or well-being metrics. The town of Centerville, Massachusetts recently got a lot of press in the New York Times for doing something very similar. And there’s a lot of issues, I by no means need to trivialize how difficult it is to track some of this information.
A famous psychologist, Daniel Kahneman at Princeton writes a lot about this stuff and really does a good job in delineating how you can track sort of positive affect or how happy someone is in the moment, versus long term well-being or satisfaction for life and there’s a lot of variable still involved in that.
But my view has always been that if we can, we’re never going to be 100 percent correct in tracking what matters, well we can damn sure be a lot closer to what makes someone flourish when we are in the status quo just merely looking at embassies that frankly reflect one very, very small part of making society flourish which I believe is ultimately what we all want.
That’s kind of my interest in that field and I think it’s one that you have to start somewhere and we started with organizations because they had a big need which is what you’re saying. And so on that question of how do we help folks who really don’t like their jobs, well the truthful answer is, there are certain situations where you’re never going to be able to meet every facet of the PERMA construct which is positive psychology. What we believe though is that every person can do a lot better in an organization than they currently are, if the managers in that company want to help them do that.
We believe that people can experience more positive emotions at work, we believe they can find more meaning in what they’re doing even if it’s a bit of a stretch, even if it’s maybe not the entire organization, but seeing how they’re helping someone’s day become better and making them reflect on that. Taking more time at work to be mindful, to meditate or reflect, taking the opportunity to really try and engage with folks you’re working on and these are all really simple things, but if you’re not taking, if you’re not tracking how this is effecting the bottom line, a lot of companies aren’t going to be excited to use them. For us, we hope to push why this is important. I know I threw a lot at you guys, sorry.
Jacob: No problem. Obviously I don’t want you to get deep into the, sorry, slight glitch on my camera here. Sorry, what I was going to say was I don’t necessarily expect you to get deep into the metrics that you have with your company, but I’m just curious, do you see people like from your customers responding with a lot of happiness, a lot of sadness, what is the general mood out there in space?
Max: To be frank, we’re certainly not at a point where we can give you a generalized answer yet. It’s very much case by case so far and what I will say is that companies that already have strong organizational culture built, experienced a lot more honesty in their feedback if it’s not anonymous and so far all of our products are not anonymous.
We are building a set of anonymous questions as well. But at the end of the day, we can hell hole a lot, but you have to have, make them a culture that wants to continue to grow and managers that want to push that. So we found there’s both really good and really bad feedback that has been helpful and we hope that we can continue to work for organizations that are willing to take that feedback and learn from it.
Jacob: Can you talk a little bit about what’s next for Niko Niko? What’s on the horizon?
Max: Absolutely, so you know in the life of a startup, you can’t plan too far out ahead. We have a couple of major priorities though: number one is we are very excited, we’re doing a big validation study with the product right now, so I think one of our big competitive advantages in terms of tracking a lot of these metrics is that there are some products in space we don’t think there’s anybody doing exactly what we’re doing, very few that have a lot of science behind what they’re doing. So for us one of our big missions for this year was to prove one the relationship between mood and performance and two ask the question, does tracking mood by itself increase performance?
We’ve got a big study coming up with a professor at Wharton and a large healthcare consulting company that’s going to be running over the next three months. So that’s huge for us to be able to show what we’re working with. In the meantime, we’re trying to get Niko Niko in the hands of as many customers as possible. So if you’re watching this, if you’re excited about our mission, excited about improving your culture and performance, always feel free to tweet me or drop me a line; firstname.lastname@example.org and we’re excited to work with folks one on one to figure out what’s working.
Jacob: That’s great, so yeah, just at the end for anyone watching, nikoniko.co, so n-i-k-o-n-i-k-o-.-c-o. Very, very cool. You’re also working on another start up, I saw on your Twitter profile, something to do with clean energy, clean tech, can you talk a bit about that?
Max: Yeah, to be honest, it’s not super relevant to this, I’m not working on that full time anymore. Basically I came out of the clean energy space, I can talk about my, again, philosophical excitement about that, but the short answer is I’m full time at Niko Niko now and we’re in the process of selling that company to someone else.
Jacob: OK. My last question for you is, what companies come to your mind that have an amazing company culture, besides Niko Niko.
Max: Obviously, Niko Niko’s number one so I’m glad you recognize that. I think companies that really value their people which I know sounds a bit trite, but it’s true, so I think you can look for companies in a couple of different spaces. Obviously, tech companies come to mind first, because you know a lot of times their margins are a lot lower, they can spend a lot more in culture, so Google for example, not shocking there, companies like Rackspace have a lot of great culture as well. Another famous one, Zappos, Tony Hsieh with his whole Delivering Happiness message, any company where they recognize that there are important and often simple changes that they can make to make their people happier, more fulfilled in companies are going to have the best performance.
Now having said that, we fully understand not every company has a Google or even a Zappos budget to spend on culture and that’s one of the reasons we built Niko Niko is, we’re all about experimentation, we’re all about testing to figure out what’s going to get you the most bang for your buck, so we want people to use Niko Niko as a platform to run experiments and try different interventions of their own company workplace to see if it’s working, to see if it’s not. That way you can spend the money and time that you do have as practically as possible. So that’s one of the things that we hope to empower sort of non-traditional companies to be able to do well as well.
Jacob: Awesome, well thanks so much for that. I just want to take a quick minute, thank you again for taking some time out of your busy schedule to come chat with me. Again, anyone watching this, check out nikoniko.co if you want to track your employees moods. And yeah, we’ll see you next time. Thanks.
Simplify direct reports and communication, and boost team morale.How it Works
Empower your managers and align all teams for a better company culture.How it Works