We talk with Brian Williams, CEO and Co-founder of Viget, a software company with an amazing company culture. Brian explains to us how they make it so good.
Jacob: Hello everyone, I am Jacob Shriar, Director of Customer Happiness at Office Vibe. And today I am with Brian Williams who is the co-founder and CEO of Viget. Brian thanks so much for being here with me.
Brian: Thanks for having me.
Jacob: Awesome, so excited to learn more about Viget. From what I have heard, talking to a few people, it’s one of the cooler companies with a pretty unique and amazing culture. But don’t let me do all the talking. I want to hear what you have to say. Can you give us a bit of background on Viget? Let’s start there, just first of all, what do you guys do, tell us a bit more about the company and then we’ll talk about the culture and how that all works?
Brian: Sure, Viget is a digital agency. We are 67 people full time, as of this week. Our roots are in software development. I actually started my career as a software engineer and started Viget back in 1999 with my brother who is still my co-founder here. And we were intent on building digital products for funded start-ups. And so, you can imagine back in the original .com boom back in the late 90’s early 2000’s, that was a pretty exciting time. But we quickly figured out that with the .com bust, with the initial, ones that having all of your clients be in the start-up sector is not a great idea for a bootstrapped consulting company. So, we sort of pivoted away from that a little bit realizing that traditional organizations, big brands and so on, needed a lot of the same skills and processing capabilities to get online and do all things that we’re trying to do in the digital world. So, since that time we’ve evolved. We still do a lot of work with early stage web companies but we also work with big brands like Puma and Dick’s Sporting Goods and the World Wild Life Fund and folks like that to handle all of their digital work. Again, we’re very technical in sort of our roots and so we bring this culture of software and technology focus. We also bring a little bit of that start up energy into these bigger organizations so things like being lean or being agile or being focused on data driven decisions, those sort of things we are able to bring into bigger organizations. As well as just for the cutting edge technology advancements and innovations that you see in the start-up world. Been at it now for almost 15 years, had good growth, we’ve got 3 offices, based just outside of Washington D.C. and we have folks in Durham, North Carolina as well as Boulder, Colorado. Where I spend about a month every summer myself and we’re enjoying it and it’s great to be in the space that we’re in these days.
Jacob: Nice, very, very cool. Yeah, I love Boulder too, it’s probably my favorite city in the entire USA. I would love to learn more about the culture there, okay and actually what’s really interesting, based on what you were just saying was, how you have grown and pivoted slightly and changed your focus. I would love to know how, first of all, the culture because you started it all. So, you know the culture that you intended to build, the core values that you really wanted to put in place and then maybe, if you can, if anything sort of changed in terms of the culture and those values as you guys pivoted, talk a little bit about that in kind of the type of environment that you’re trying to build and you keep building.
Brian: Yeah, I mean I think the core values of the company haven’t changed. When we started the company in ’99, it was clear the internet was changing everything and we wanted to be a part of that revolution. We wanted to be – the goal was, “let’s get involved early in this industry that’s really going to change everything and have a real voice, have a real influence on how things get done.” So, it’s this sort of cliche, change the world kind of mentality. And our philosophy was, there’s going to be an unlimited amount of work to do in this space for decades to come. The challenge is going to be bringing together the right team of people to do the most interesting work along the way. So, our focus from the very beginning has been to bring good people in, high integrity, the kind of people that you would want to work with. Recognizing the good people, attract other good people to work with. Certainly, the culture is built around servicing our clients, being focused on client satisfaction, doing what’s best for our clients but ultimately what’s best for the clients is that we recruit and retain the best possible people in the company.
So around our core values and our original mission, it is this idea of being good people, attracting good people, retaining good people, that means, the personal integrity is the foundation of everything. But it also means that you’re a good team mate, that you’re empathetic and supportive of your team mates. It also means that you’re focused on being good at your skill sets. So, whatever your job is in the organization, we really make sure that we’re hiring people that very focused on their professional growth and their strengths as a professional. That really hasn’t changed from day one, that focus on bringing in the best possible team. The approach that we take has evolved overtime with just as the organization grows, as our clients change, as the industry changes.
So, the other part of the philosophy I think coming into this, when we started back in ’99 and tried to develop a culture, it was this idea of autonomy in individuals, making our own decisions for what’s best for the project, for the client, for the organization as a whole. I think it’s very difficult to micro manage and to have this top down focus on building a culture, even if you thought that was a good idea, it would be very difficult in an organization and an industry that is changing so rapidly. Like we do the stuff that works right now is different than what worked two years ago and it’s different than what’s going to work 2 years from now. So, we’re constantly going through this change in evolution. And that’s the thing that we look for when we hire people and then building on that foundation of being a good person is, “Is this person ambitious about where they’re taking their career? Are they adapted in their approach? Do they have a lifelong love of learning and are they focused on that professionally?”
We have a saying that, “Professional growth of Viget is not optional, it’s required.” We invest a lot of time and funding into various ways for people to grow professionally whether that’s formal training, going to conferences, internal knowledge sharing. Even the types of clients that we take on in the projects that we do, a big factor in the business development side of things and what we’re looking for is opportunities to learn new things and to grow as individuals and as a team. And again, speaking of growth, not in the form of headcount. We don’t really care about headcount growth, that’s always been the saying goes, “Headcount growth is the result of other things going well.” So, for doing good work for clients and we’re doing the right things around recruiting, then yeah, the company will grow and we’ll have more folks here to work with. But we don’t necessary aspire to any certain size in terms of headcount as a company. Again, all of these things are baked into the culture and what we originally set out to achieve and have been consistent all these years.
Jacob: Nice, very very cool yeah. One of the core values at Office Vibe is worded “Passion is not optional.” So very, very similar to what you were just saying. It sounds like you have recruiting pretty down pat. Let’s learn more about on boarding and I guess you have that, I’ll say, continuous learning and that ties a lot into retention obviously. But any tips and tricks that you can share because it sounds like you guys are doing things really well. Like you were talking about, giving your employee’s autonomy and things like that. I would love to learn more different, unique secrets that other companies can learn from in terms of let’s say, on boarding or retention or whatever you want, anything you can think of that maybe you guys do unique or maybe you’ve learnt over the years that has worked really, really well for you guys. Really, any tips and tricks that anyone watching this, that’s not as good as you guys can really learn from.
Brian: Sure, I mean I think we have a lot of things figured out but I think a lot of that stuff has been with trial and error and just the experience of going through it over the years and making sure that we’re learning from our experiences. In fact one of the things when you’re looking for tips, one of the things I recommend is having a culture of reflection and constant retrospective. So, we talk about perpetual discontentment in the sense that everybody should always feel a little bit frustrated, not entirely frustrated but no one should be highly comfortable because that means we’re not pushing ourselves, we’re not trying new things. Everybody should be a little bit uncomfortable and everybody should be always thinking about how we can get better and optimistic that we can get better. So, I think one of the things that will kill company’s culture is hopelessness. Basically people see the same mistakes happening over and over and over again. That’s a real frustrating reality you have to go through.
For us, everything that we do has a retrospective component to it. Every project ends with the team getting together and talking about what could have gone better, everything from the sales process, the project delivery, the way we worked as a team, everything about every recruiting process you know, we’re interviewing a guy today. After that we’ll talk about how could we have done that interview process better? Even a sales opportunity, a larger sales opportunity that maybe we don’t win, we’ll talk about why that happened and what we could do to avoid it the next time? All the way down to our holiday party. We’ll have a retrospective for the, you know how could we have made the holiday party more fun? It’s not some bloated, wasteful meeting, it’s actually getting smart people together in the moment where this thing just happened and saying, “How can we improve the next time that it comes around?” Not only does that literally make us better the next time around, it gives everybody involved that optimism and hope that we’re not going to make the same mistakes over and over again. We have certainly a culture that’s accepting of the reality that everybody makes mistakes and that’s fine, we welcome that, we encourage small failures, so to speak. But we don’t encourage consistent, multiple failures that are done without respect for what we’ve learned in the past. So, I think that’s a key aspect to things.
I think an aspect of that in terms of retention in culture is, giving everybody a voice through that process, making sure that you’re not isolated, you’re isolating your reflection down to just to your executive team, your leadership team. You know, make sure that everybody has a voice in ways to improve the company, I think that’s an important aspect of it. Even on boarding, you mentioned on boarding, we ask the new person who starts at the company, in their first week, “How could we have done the recruiting process better?” This is the person is fresh off the recruiting process and knows it better than we do from the outside, what can we learn from that person to improve the next time around? So, that’s I think another aspect of things.
In general, I think our industry is – there’s aspects of Viget that are little old school and hopefully in a positive way. I think that some degree of mentor-ship, of leadership, of holding people accountable, working with them to set goals and then holding them accountable for those goals, having them set goals for the company and having them hold the company accountable, there’s a degree of “let’s make a plan, let’s execute that plan, let’s look back on how well we delivered on that plan and how we can improve next time.” It helps people progress in their career. We have people that have been with the company for 14 years, 12 years, 10, 9, 8 years I mean, people have been around for a long, long time. I think part of why they stay is that they are learning, earning and growing professionally as the company grows. And that’s, I think, when people lose faith and hope that they’re going to be able to continue to progress in their career within an organization, they’re likely to look around, I think they should, I would. That’s one of things we think about.
Jacob: Very, very cool yeah. I mean, now what I want to ask though is, what goes wrong? I mean because it’s sounds like you’re doing a lot of things right, obviously, but in your own opinion, what are some areas that you think you guys could probably improve on. I’m sure – you know no one’s perfect obviously.
Brian: Absolutely, I can go on for a long time about things that we can improve on, for sure. I think that as we have grown, there’s just a natural tendency for people to assume that this idea of kind of the way always was you know. So, one of things that we work on is encouraging every individual on our project team, for example, to feel comfortable raising ideas for improvement on that project in real time, don’t wait for the retrospective. As opposed to say, sitting back and saying, “Well, the 15 years of experience of Viget in the hundreds or thousands of projects that we’ve completed, have a certain way of happening and we’ll just going to go along with that.” The reality is, the way that Viget has always been successful is by giving individual people freedom and small team’s the ability to execute in a way that’s best for that specific situation. But as, again as we grow, I think it’s harder to make sure that that happens and there’s a natural tendency to just try to go and repeat past successes which, in a the long run, really aren’t going to happen so that’s a challenge. Communication is always a challenge. We have multiple offices so that creates challenges. Different time zones. Making sure that people know each other well enough to have that real human connection is important to me. So, investing in the right amount of travel to get people to get to know each other face to face is an expensive investment but an important one. I think sometimes we tend to not invest in that enough and probably should do more of that.
I think, any kind of services company, we can always do a better job of selling and earning the right type of clients. We can always do a better job on delivery to make sure that we’re providing the best possible value to our clients. We really want to work, do a better job of telling our story publicly. I think Viget has historically been early in terms of we were always a bit on open source projects, since we do a lot of open source software development, but even blogging has been a huge focus for us over the years. We’ll take everything that we know, write it up in blog posts and share it with world, speaking conferences we’ll do that a fair amount, but we aren’t very good at, frankly, about bragging about ourselves, we aren’t really good at telling the story in a way that I think is as compelling as it could be or should be. And it just hasn’t been a focus for us. The philosophy has been, “Do great work, share what you know, be good people and good things will happening.” And it’s true and it certainly has. We’ve had a good long track record of success but when we think about taking that to the next level, one of the things that we want to work on is, telling our story a little bit better.
Jacob: Nice, very, very cool. At least you are aware of the problems so you can start to work on them. I would love to ask about I’ll say, “Measuring employee engagement”. Do you do any type of surveys or pulse surveys or how do you keep a pulse, really, on how happy everyone is or how much they’re learning and things like that, what do you do to sort of measure engagement?
Brian: It’s mainly just traditional communication. We don’t necessarily use specific apps, although I have talked to various shops and continue to look at various tools for tracking that sort of stuff. It’s interesting to think about tracking that as a data point as specifically as we do track hours, we are one of the shops that tracks hours and often bills hourly. So, we have people in the routine of putting data in and adding an element of “how are you feeling today” and “what’s your perspective on your outlook on the work” or whatever, would be an interesting idea to experiment with. But by and large we do a few things around communication. One is, everybody meets with their manager, which is a very lose, flat term here at Viget, but typically every two weeks for a one-on-one and that is a mini review in both directions. So we’re talking about “Are you making progress towards your goals that you established in your annual review? Are you doing the best possible work you can? If not, what are your blockers? How can we help you be more successful?” That sort of things. But it’s a discussion with one-on-one with somebody who is ultimately responsible, in part, for your long term success at the organization. That’s one way we keep a one-on-one pulse with it. We have a weekly staff meeting where everybody gets together across all three offices and we have sort of a “nightly news” style broadcast from each office that gives an update about what’s going on in each office whether it’s events or projects or new business opportunities, those sorts of things. So that’s our chance of everybody to get together, some of it’s social, but it’s also just we’re talking about where the company is headed and what’s going on. And that’s a good reset. You get a good vibe on how everybody is doing there.
We do a formal survey every quarter, it’s part of our quarterly meeting, we call it the Third Third Thursday event, TTT. It used to be every third, every month so it’s third Thursday but that became a little too frequent. So, now we do them every quarter and that’s a great reset and a good chance to survey the staff, ask a bunch of questions then we all get together as a group and we talk through those questions as sort of a big round table discussion, have a good fun part of the day as well. Those are some of the things. And then as part of annual review process, I still meet with everybody on the staff as part of the annual review, and often as part of their mid-year review, where we sit down over lunch and have a conversation about how things are going. And again, that’s partially their individual performance and where their career is headed, which is a positive thing as long as it’s done well. I know there’s a lot of people that to sort of discredit annual performance reviews, and I think that’s short sited, which we could talk about more if we want. But the point is, that’s also a chance for them to talk about “How is the company doing? How is our leadership team doing?” those are some things that do come out of that. In terms of keeping a pulse, that’s a huge part of it frankly just face to face, one-on-one or two-on-one discussions with people and that’s worked really well over the years.
Jacob: Nice, yeah that sounds very, very good, that frequent communication is so, so important. And it’s very, very interesting, I do actually want to talk more about what you just said about annual performance reviews. When I first started researching and writing about annual performance reviews, I discovered a lot the problems with them and I was actually advocating to get rid of them and I was saying, “They don’t work, based on all the research and there’s books written about that how they don’t work and this and that.” And then actually the more I learned about it and actually I had one here, and I think we do it pretty well in all honesty, I realized that they’re not so bad and they actually provide a great opportunity for that retrospective that you’re talking about and they can help you plan in cycles and this and that. And what’s interesting for me, I am sure not a lot of people notice this but I do, if you look at my writing and I have written probably let’s say 10 articles on annual performance reviews, it’s sort of shifts, like it starts might be saying, let’s get rid of them, it’s literally call it like, it’s time to get rid of the annual performance review as a pulse. And slowly but surely I shift in my writing to talk about why they can be good and how they actually help you grow. I guess, I mean you know this already but my guess maybe my question for you is, “Why do you think other companies don’t do them well like what do you think the problem is? What makes companies that do them well versus companies that don’t do them well?”
Brian: It’s an interesting topic, it’s like meetings you know Jason Fried has his great quote “Meetings are toxic.” Well, it makes for a great headline but the reality is, no bad meetings are toxic, good meetings are fantastic. I feel the same way with performance reviews and lots of other aspects of running an organization. If you grow up professionally in an environment where performance reviews are poorly run or meetings are poorly done or time tracking is terrible, all these other things that can be terrible, then your sense is that that’s a bad thing but if you can do them well, then you can understand the intent and how they can be done well in a way that is actually productive for everybody involved, they can be very, very good. We certainly don’t have, they’re not perfect here by any means but I think what one – there’s a couple of things that we do that are important. One is, they are not just a manager sitting down and thinking about an individual person and writing up a bunch of criticisms. It is a true 360 in a sense that we have peers that provide feedback at every area within the organization. When we can we get clients to provide feedback if that’s relevant to an individual’s performance. And a lot of it, frankly, is peer praise. Most 90% of their review process at Viget is hearing direct quotes, anonymous quotes, but direct quotes from your co-coworkers about how much they love working with you and how great you did on X, Y, Z job or whatever it is. So, it’s a huge confidence boost in terms or hearing from not just me, your manager who is supposed to make you feel good, but your real peers, who are just commenting positively about you.
We break down our performance reviews into six sections which reflect the kind of values that are company things like hard work and professional growth and communication and collaboration and community involvement and stuff like that. And for each of those sections, we talk about “what have you done well in the past year and what do you think you can improve on going ahead?” And again, it’s not some ambiguous criticism, it’s more like, “let’s set this goal and work with you on this going forward.” We always check on your goals from the previous year and then we always set new goals with you going forward. The self-review is a key part of it as well in terms of 360 concept, so individuals will write out a very detailed assessment of their own work, their peers, their company. It’s sort of the chance to take every year to sit down and take some time to write and then over the course of a two hour lunch meeting to sit back and say, “How’s everything going, what are we working on?” So, that process works very well. A key aspect of it, though, that I would emphasize, and this is an area that I think people get wrong sometimes is, you can’t let – it can’t just be an annual review and that’s it and you never really talk to people outside of that.
Our one-on-one process which, again is typically twice a month with people, they’re in many ways, mini reviews. We’re spending less time maybe half hour but it’s a quick check in. And the philosophy is always, look if there’s an issue that we need to bring up with somebody, maybe there’s a miscommunication, maybe they seemed distracted, maybe they’re focusing on the wrong thing. You sit down and say, “Okay, is this something that is so urgent, I need to pull them out of the meeting right now and go talk to them?” This is a really urgent thing, let’s deal with it right now and take care of that. If it’s something that is not that urgent but really shouldn’t wait for an annual review which might be six months away. Well, then let’s talk about it in a one-on-one, more of a setting of “let’s do a little bit of reflection here, this is an area I think you can improve on.” And then if it’s something that is not urgent at all, it can wait for an annual review and go in that way. I think a big mistake people make is they let things fester and build up. Again, either positive or negative to where people don’t know where they stand and that’s a problem. But I still think, just like I do in my own personal life, taking some time every once a while to step back and re-calibrate, refocus and make sure you’re headed in the right direction is an important aspect in anybody’s career development and at any company.
Jacob: Definitely, I think that you’re right. I think that was a very, very good point. One thing that I think about is that I think the real key is about being genuine and being authentic. I think that’s a big mistake that a lot of companies make. A lot of times sort of these corporate environments, not to dig on any company or any type of setting, but they don’t take the process seriously, they don’t really care enough about the annual review. So, they don’t genuinely want to help that person grow professionally, right, and you can tell if your manager or your boss actually cares about you or not right? That’s very, very obvious so even if it’s constructive or let’s say negative feedback, if it’s done in a genuine way where it’s like, “I am only telling you this because I want to help you and I actually want you to become better at your job for you to be happier in life etc” then that is okay. If it’s just like, “oh yeah you screwed up on that project get out of my office.” So, then that can go the total opposite way, you see what I mean?
Brian: Absolutely yeah, yeah I know and I would build on that to say, your point of happiness in life, right, it’s not just happiness in this job. One of the things we talk about in this management structure at Viget is, if somebody seems unhappy at Viget and it’s because they really would be happier at a product company or they’d be happier living somewhere where we don’t have an office and we wouldn’t be able to support our worker. If they would be happier outside of Viget, everyone would benefit from them leaving. So, we have a great retention over the years, as I mentioned earlier, but certainly not everybody that comes and works at Viget as a perfect fit. So, for a manager to think, “Well, I can never mention or maybe you should think about leaving” as being some sort of a horrible thing to say. I think that’s misguided. We really think about people in terms of the context of their long term career, some people come in to Viget and quickly turn themselves in the lifer’s. People that seem like they’re going to be happy and stay forever which I love and I really I honestly want everyone that’s coming into the organization to feel like there’s a chance of that can happen with them that they’re that excited about taking a job at Viget. But the reality is, plenty of people come into Viget and work here for 2, 3 or 4 years, learn a lot, contribute a lot and then go on and do other things. Maybe they really love the non-profit sector and they just want to go work in non-profits, or maybe they have an idea for a digital product and they want to go do their own start-up or again, maybe they want to live in California or something like that and we don’t have an office there. So, there’s all kind of reasons that people can leave Viget. And we have a great, healthy alumni group that we love and are supportive of and vice versa. I think you have to have a mindset as a mentor and a coach who never think in terms of how you’re leading a team to say what is best for you long term in your career. Hopefully it’s something that our company and we’re able to provide you with an environment where you’re excited to stay long term. But if not, it’s not anything to be secretive about or scared of, let’s have that conversation.
Jacob: Very cool, I wish we could go deeper into this. We’re running out of time, my last question for you very, very quickly is, tell me more about the innovation lab, that you guys have their Pointless Corp?
Brian: Pointless Corp, yes. As we like to say neither pointless nor a corporation, it is funny so when we incorporated the business back in 99 Viget, our legal name is Viget Labs, LLC and Viget was really a prize holder code name for this business that we’re going to start, it’s Latin It means flourishes. But labs was the more important part of the company name. We have really wanted to be an innovative, experimental company; we wanted the clients to understand that. If you hire Viget, we’re going to try new things, we’re going to push the envelope. We might fail in small ways and then find the right path, these were in ’99, these were sort of little bit unique ideas but definitely part of our mind set. But we didn’t want to ever give the sense that Viget is not here for our clients or that we are using our clients solely to fund our own product development aspirations. I don’t want to run a product company, I love services, I love our clients, I love their variety of work, I love that every a new client comes in with some new idea this morning, talking a lot of really cool idea, that stuff goes away when you’re focused on just one product. So, I love the variety of services but realistically, we have our own ideas and we can learn and benefit for ourselves and for our clients by experimenting with our own concepts. So, we developed Pointless Corp not sort of inside joke on the concept of this point of course is not pointless, the intent is to reflect at a point. And every direction is the same, is no point at all. So, it can go in any different direction with these different ideas, it doesn’t have to be in any one sector, one space. So, we have played with all kinds of tools over the years, we’ve built a version of Google Hangouts before there was such a thing because we needed this thing and then Google Hangouts came along and we killed that thing and that’s fine with us. This is a better solution so we’re always out to trying to experiment and innovate with our own product, ideas. And some are more popular than others but it’s primarily just an outlet for us to be creative and to try new things. In the long run, we may try to turn some of them into revenue generating ideas and I think there’s some interest and appeal and I think we’re [SP] to size [SP] now or we could [SP] handle that in a way that wouldn’t influence our services work for our clients. But for now, it’s mostly just to build fun [SP] and useful things for ourselves.
Jacob: Nice, very very cool. I think we’ll end it here but honestly yeah, Brian really just want to thank you so much for taking sometime to chat with me. You guys really know what you’re doing in their and everything I am hearing Viget is above very very cool company. Yeah, I think we’ll end it here but really just want to thank you again, hopefully we can do this again sometime
Brian: Absolutely, thanks Jacob, appreciate it.
Jacob: All right, great, take care.