Time & Materials
Time & Materials Podcast
Building Culture In Services Businesses
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Building Culture In Services Businesses

... plus a deep dive into the challenges and benefits of remote-first work

I’m excited to announce something new this week: I’ll be periodically collaborating with other experts in the professional services space and sharing that work as a podcast.

Today I’m sharing the first of those collaborations with Aater Suleman, an experienced professional services founder of the firm Flux7 that NTT Data acquired in 2019. Aater is now helping other professional services founders through his accelerator, Vixul. Think of it as the Y Combinator of IT services.

In the podcast, Aater and I discuss remote work, culture building, and his experiences in founding and growing Flux7, which was fully remote from the start. We delve into the benefits and challenges of work cultures in professional services companies, the differences between remote, in-person, and hybrid work environments, and the key factors contributing to successful remote work cultures.

Listen through the player at the top of this post, or look for the podcast wherever you listen. It will also be showing up in podcast directories over the next day or so. I’ve summarized the key parts of the discussion below and have a full transcript at the bottom of today’s post.


Key Points From Our Discussion

  1. Be deliberate about building a culture and the way of working: The culture of professional services businesses is even more important than in product companies because these are people-centric businesses. There is no digital interface to professional services - it’s all about how people behave, work, and feel.

    Clearly define and document the culture and values of the company, ensuring that expectations are clear for all employees. This will help guide their behavior and interactions regardless of how employees work (in-person, remote, or hybrid).

    Defining core values that are aligned with the culture you want and being explicit about how people work are important first steps, but it can’t end there. Leadership needs to model these behaviors for others, and clients observing the core values in their engagements is an important confirmation that the culture is manifesting itself the way leadership expects.

  2. Ensure your culture and ways of working are aligned with your prospective customers: For example, if you know that your way of working is remote-centric and a prospective customer can’t or won’t work that way, the engagement will not be successful. It’s better to “qualify out” prospects that are a bad fit.

  3. Foster connections among team members: In a remote work setting, it is crucial to create opportunities for team members to interact and build relationships. This can include one-on-one meetings, group chats, and virtual team-building activities. Encourage open communication channels and provide platforms for informal conversations, emulating the "hallway conversations" found in physical offices.

  4. Ensure inclusive culture for remote and in-office workers: If you have a hybrid work environment, ensure that both remote and in-office employees are equally included in the company culture. This can be achieved by adopting practices and tools that work for both groups and being aware of potential biases towards in-office employees.

  5. Emphasize clear and consistent communication: Remote work, in particular, requires more deliberate and structured communication to keep everyone on the same page. Utilize tools and platforms that facilitate collaboration and information sharing. Encourage transparency and open communication across the company.

  6. Monitor and measure success in the context of culture: Regularly assess the effectiveness of employee engagement and, if working remotely, remote work policies and practices. Track key performance indicators (KPIs) to ensure that the remote work culture is achieving its goals. Be open to adjusting based on feedback and observed outcomes, and share your findings with employees regularly. Glassdoor reviews are a trailing indicator of employee sentiment, so use other tools to get an early read on how employees feel so you can take action faster to correct culture or engagement problems.

  7. Lead by example: It's essential for leadership to model the desired remote work culture and behaviors. This includes embracing the remote work environment, participating in virtual activities, and actively engaging with remote employees.

By following these takeaways, you can create a strong foundation for a successful remote work culture that enables your team members to be productive, engaged, and connected, despite the physical distance.


What questions do you have about professional services culture building or ways of working? Send them over and I’ll work on them for a future post or podcast.

Leave a comment

Do you know someone with a perspective you’d like to see or hear about professional services? Let me know, I’d love to talk to them!

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Full Transcript

CH:

Welcome to the podcast. Today we're going to be discussing services, businesses culture, and have a particular focus on remote working culture. And to do that I'm joined by Aater Suleman, who's a super experienced founder in the space, we're going to talk about his background and all of his experiences in building cultures in IT services, businesses, and how to do that in a very remote centric kind of way in a second, but first Aater, welcome to the podcast.

AS:

Thank you so much, Chris. Thank you for having me.

CH:

So I know a big part of what we're going to talk about today is culture. And I know this is a thing that's both you and I have a lot of passion around, because we've had conversations about it before. But before we get into that, I think it's helpful for folks who don't know you have a little bit of background about really kind of how you came about knowing about this in the services business that you built. So maybe you can just give us a little bit of background on the company that you started and how you ended up thinking about this so much.

AS:

Absolutely, I would take you back even a little further in my background, because that actually is how I became so passionate about culture. So this was about 18 years ago, I was in graduate school at that time, I got to experience working with a team at Intel that was a startup under the Intel Capital Program. And we were working on building a brand new product for Intel called Intel Larrabee folks who follow the silicon circles will know that probably still remember that name from 20 years ago, it was a pretty big splash of news, long and short of it that was that, frankly, I enjoyed working with that team and in that culture so much that it ended up changing the path of my career. My original plan had always been that I will go to my PhD and then actually become a professor. But working with that particular team on that product was so much fun that I ended up deciding to not become full time professor, just pursue that thing on the side and ended up going down the entrepreneurial path. So hence, culture, I think it's not just a passion of mine that developed post, but it's practically what defines my career and has defined who I became, was what I learned while working at that team. So fast forward a few years, I left Intel and then started my first startup flex seven in 2013. We were services company that built its name doing DevOps and AWS work, typically focused on enterprise clients in a few industries. And our main goal would be to help these companies transform how they ran operations and make them more cloud and DevOps centric, more automation focused. And when we started with Flex seven, we were a garage startup, like most of the startups are, I think we went a different path for most startups is that when we started doing well, we decided that instead of at that point, renting an office, which by the way, I did go and actually look at some offices, we took a different direction. And we said, Well, how about everyone just works from home and the garage is too small. And that was also motivated by the fact that we did have some offshore engineers working with us. So my point was, well, they're working with us pretty effectively. Why do we need an office here, even though we are in Austin, but that's not a good reason just to take on an expense. We built that organization completely office less over the course of next five years until we reached our exit, and remote culture. My passion for culture. And our decision to go remote is kind of how you can say and develop the expertise and some of the experience that we'll be talking about today.

CH:

Yeah, and I think it's kind of easy in current times to think, well, this is a pretty natural thing. But I remember, you know, we were starting level right around the same time that you were starting Flux7. And so in 2014, people did work remotely sometimes, but it wasn't just a foregone conclusion that you could run a company remotely in those days. And so, you know, it's interesting that you, you kind of so immediately went down that path.

AS:

That is absolutely right. It was going against conventional wisdom for sure, at that time. But I think some of that debt have to do with us being a services company as well, because and I actually do feel that services companies in some cases are a better candidate for remote work because we were already distributed, like it or not, geographically there was it was not like everyone was in Austin. So even if we started an office in Austin, a percentage of folks would still be remote. Now, yes, we could get then a second office in some other part of the world, and then maybe a third office in the third part of the world. But from the perspective of one office to the other, it really is remote. It's just that you have a group of people talking to a group of people rather than individuals. And so in some ways, while it was unconventional, it was pretty natural for us to go that route. Because some people are already kind of remote and working from home, and we're not seeing them, why can't we bring that model to the rest of the team as well? So for us, it was actually less of a stretch, if you will, from that standpoint, it was just a natural progression that we were headed, I guess the right way to say it is we didn't cave into conventional wisdom.

CH:

Yeah. Well, I know, we'll spend more time on the remote work aspect back to this in a second. But I think just backing up and even focusing on culture and services businesses is a good place to start. And like you said, this is something that I know you're passionate about. I think for people who haven't been in a services business or who haven't started a services business, it may not be obvious why creating a culture in a services business is important or why it's hard. So I know I've got my own thoughts on this. But I'd love to start with kind of your thoughts on number one, like what why is it a thing to even care about? And number two, is it really a hard thing to do? Or? Or is it just like starting or creating a culture in any other business

AS:

I actually believe that culture is more important in a services business than, for example, a SaaS startup if you're starting off, and the reason is that, fundamentally, it's been well understood that every business succeeds by being customer centric and customer obsessed. In SaaS startup, that typically implies making my user interface really good. And we all know that companies go through cycles and cycles of making sure that their user interface their website is extremely friendly, and is up at all times and loads fast, and all the right things because the more pleasureful that experiences, the more they're going to use our software product or an app and go from there. Now, turn that into the services business, the fundamental rules of business do not change because we are in services. So the goal still has to be providing a delightful customer experience that the customers will remember and want to come back and use more. But the difference is that our interface is not a digital user experience, but rather a human driven user experience. Which means that the way that human beings interact with those customers have to play that same role and say that the Amazon website plays for amazon.com, because just the amount of effort that goes at Amazon to make amazon.com extremely user friendly, I feel is the equivalent of how much effort should go into a services business to make sure that the culture is built in such a way that employees are genuinely happy and genuinely are aligned with the core values of the business. And the correct expectation set with the customer that these are values, then make it a delightful customer experience. If you tell them that you're going to be, for example, our three core values were humble, innovative, and transparent. And we permeated it through every engagement to every SOW our customers knew our core values as well, because that is how we said what the user experience is going to look like from the first pitch that we had. And we did stand by that. And that is how we expected our customers to evaluate us. And that's the lens we always wanted them to look into. So I feel it's very important and more important than it is in a company the way the most of the staff is kind of behind a web interface, if you will, or an API to answer your second question really quickly, is it different? I think it is fundamentally different when you build culture in a services company. And it is in fact a slightly harder problem. In fact, a good statistical way to gauge the difficulty there is if you actually go and say look at the Glassdoor ratings of some of the top services companies and compare them with some of the product companies, you will see a noticeable difference. The reason is because in a product company, fundamentally, everything is working towards that one website or that one API. But in a services company, by definition, each group or each individual, sometimes even maybe working for a different problem for a different customer. So how do you keep them connected to your culture? Makes it a more more difficult problem to actually solve. But still yet the more important?

CH:

Yeah, I totally agree on that. The last part, so maybe to kind of play back some of what you said and dig into it in a little bit more detail. I think services businesses, you know, fundamentally are people businesses, and like you were saying, the only interface the only experience that you have is a human one, the digital one. There really is no digital interface when you're running a services business.

And so having a kind of feeling or culture that comes through in the people is super important. But you have to be deliberate about how you create that. Or else it just kind of creates itself. And it may not be the thing that you want it to be right maybe to just to ask if you agree with this, I think if you're not consciously creating culture, some culture is being created within your company, but you're not necessarily controlling it or steering it in anyway. Right?

AS:

I completely agree with that. Yeah, in fact, I always say that the most important thing that you can do with culture is to be deliberate about it, you have to make that a thought until you deliberate about it and you're conscious about it, you will learn the culture will get created by accident, if it's not intentional, and may not be the culture that you want.

CH:

Yeah. And I think the comparison to product companies is good, because I agree with you, I think a lot of people, they start with a mental model that's very based on having a digital product of some sort. And the culture, you know, first, I think the culture is somewhat generated by what the feeling or the spirit of that product is. But I think the other thing that I've always thought is true in these kinds of services business cultures is, you don't have that common rallying cry around what it is that you're doing to your point, people are working on different clients, they're going from one client to another, some people may be engaged at a client for a long period of time, they may not interact with their coworkers as much. And so it becomes way more important to have some kind of glue around what people do and what they believe and why they're doing what they're doing. Because there is no kind of common element otherwise, there's nothing else that they're kind of all working on together. Is that do you think that that's right? Or? Or do you think that there's a another way around that challenge for services businesses?

AS:

I think you're spot on. Actually, I would agree with everything said that it is about the deliberation. And that's exactly what makes it challenging. Interestingly enough, that this is one area where the intersection of remote and services, it's actually helpful. Because like you said, if you're in a services business where, say your typical employees spending four or five days a week at a customer site physically, it becomes a lot harder to manage that then if you have a situation where you have a remote team that is mostly working from I guess, in this gives their homes are the equivalent of that in a non remote culture would be from your office, because taking an hour, 30 minutes out of there for team meeting is a lot more practical than it is for somebody who's physically at a different site. So I think in some ways remote and services from a culture standpoint might actually be a plus.

CH:

Yeah. You know what one of the things that you mentioned that I wanted to come back to was the Glassdoor topic. And I think for anybody who's run a business, you've probably had some positive and some negative experiences with Glassdoor, but but my sense of glass door is that it's kind of like a trailing indicator. So Glassdoor reviews end up on Glassdoor, and they say what they say. And to some extent, there's not a whole lot you can do about what happened in the past, you can influence what happens in the future. But I think the thing that I always thought we should do more of and I think we did do a lot of this at Levvel was to try to get a kind of read on how people felt about the company and the business before it ever showed up on Glassdoor. And I'm curious, I know you've got a lot of thoughts on this. But what's your advice to a founder or leadership team? That's trying to say, hey, you know what, I want to know what's going on? Before I read it on a Glassdoor review.

AS:

This goes back to our earlier discussion on it, you have to be deliberate. And I guess I'm gonna pull off the classic, you can't control something that you cannot measure. So you have to be measuring it and Glassdoor is when you find out that somebody is unhappy and glassed over it is too late. You're absolutely right. So as a matter of principle, you want to have a tighter feedback loop and you want to be hearing from people as frequently as possible. These days, it's actually become a lot easier. There are tools that will actually give you things like micro polls give you quick ideas, how folks are sensing things. There's mood indicators that you can actually collect even from your Slack conversations that may be happening within your company on how people are feeling, you could explicitly be reaching out and asking them from time to time as well. And we really did all of the above. So we did have a lot of automation and trying to understand the sentiment. But then we had some explicit surveys, microphones going out on a weekly basis, typically just one question every week to get some sense on how folks are feeling. And then we had more explicit one on one check ins not just with managers, but with the culture team, as well to make sure that people are in fact feeling the way we think they are. And all of that did contribute to the Glassdoor rating. And so we did have intermediate metrics before Last two, I think it's really important to say the other thing, by the way, talk about being deliberate. When we created Okay, as far a quarter, almost always, they would be a key result or an objective connected to our, either the internal metric or the cluster metric. So, in a way, you talked about how to get people to rally around certain things, I would safely say, this was one of the top three things that we rallied about, which was let's all build a company that we all enjoy working at. And let's this was one of the callings that actually brought us all together as a company. And that really helped because culture became everyone's job as well. And everyone was very protective of the culture. And it was always music to my ears when, frankly, when in a negative conversation about a particular person, and somebody would use the word something like, well, that person is not being humble, or not being innovative or not being transparent when they actually connected it back to the core values, even when they're negative feedback, it was brilliant to kind of see that that means we have managed to crowdsource culture.

CH:

Yeah, you've got a common anchor that everyone shares as being the Northstar for how you should behave or how you should act or what's actually valued at the company,

AS:

given that people are not building one single product that actually all gave us something to rally around as well, that we are a company that is very proud of our culture.

CH:

That's great. One more thing on on the measurement piece of it. So you know, one of the things about Glassdoor is it's very public, and people know what what's out there for these intermediate measurements that you're talking about where you are doing micro polls, or using some kind of statistical process like, you know, collecting employee NPS or something like that? How much did you share that data internally, with employees?

AS:

Very transparent. Every monthly meeting, I would have a slide on what we are seeing. And we will always talk about what are the hypotheses that we think if something is going down? Why? And then what initiatives are being put in place to turn that around? And if it's going up, then also why and what we believe has actually led to these results. So yeah, it was a very big again, everyone on the culture. So it was a single KPI that we all shared in the company.

CH:

And that's great. We did something very similar. And I think that it's a good way to model transparency. Because if you value transparency, as an organization, it's easy to be transparent. When things are good. It's a little bit or a lot uncomfortable, to share things when things are not so good. And I think that's where you earn true credibility in being transparent is can you talk about bad news,

AS:

that's when you really have to live the example. So to keep transparency was one of our three core values. And I'm assuming some of my ex team members will be watching this at some point. So for the first time, I'm actually going to share with them that there were days when I would be preparing for a team meeting. And I was wondering, I wish this was not one of those values, because I don't want to be sharing this right now. But I have to because that's one of the values. And that's what it means to actually have a core value that you live by.

Unknown Speaker

No, I think that's an important element of vulnerability as a leader. A lot of times I share your sentiment, right? You I think I always felt this need to kind of portray, like, it was comfortable to be transparent. But it's not. I mean, it's, you'd be lying. If you said that it was I mean, there's always moments where you're just like, oh, geez, like this would be so much easier if I didn't have to, you know, be honest about this. But

AS:

yeah, I've definitely had those moments.

CH:

Yeah, you and I probably think about culture, and a lot of the same ways as it relates to building services businesses. But I really want to get into the remote element of this because I think this is something where what you did was, in some ways, kind of like starting the path down remote work before it was a popular thing to do. So I'm curious maybe as a starting point, what what do you think the biggest challenge was that you ran into as you're building this remote working environment?

AS:

I think the biggest challenge was to convince everyone that this was going to work because it was the conventional wisdom that we went up against. So ironically, I think the biggest challenge came in the early days of just making convincing everyone that this is the right thing to do. And this will actually work come together. As you start to have proof, it became a lot easier. So that particular challenge kind of started to fade away. And in fact, the positives started to emerge. And we were able to talk about it with proof that we were doing so well that that particular challenge started to go away. But I think at no point in time, can I say that it was a challenge to be remote, frankly. But I think the reason I can make that statement is only because we had kind of painted the price upfront, if you will, in convincing everyone that this is the right thing to do if it was basically another most succinct way of saying that would be that. It's required a mindset shift. So you kind of had to do that mindset shift in the beginning. So if you're hiring somebody, you're making sure you're going to make sure that they are ready to adapt that new mindset If it's not working out, you do have to make some hard decisions if they're not ready to adapt that mindset. But once you have a team of folks who actually believe that this will work, frankly, there aren't much challenges at all, I actually think it's a lot easier than most people think it is. In fact, whenever people talk about the challenges of remote work, candidly, first thing I do is look at their profile to see if they've actually ever worked remotely in a real remote company. And typically, the answer is no.

CH:

Yeah. Well, just to dig in a little bit more. So when you say convincing everyone, is that was that convincing your employees or prospective hires? Or was that convincing? Your clients or prospects or all the above?

AS:

I would say it came at all different levels. So probably should start with convincing myself, then the employees would be we would actually run into conversations where we will have to explain why we believe this would work and in many cases to be candid, like six months review or the with the employee? And the answer would be like, Well, when I started, I wasn't sure if this was going to work. But now that I've seen it, I don't think I can ever go back to an office. So some of it was just that, but then it did not stop at just employees, we would have customers get concerned at times as well, where kind of wanted to just get back to the old ways, if you will of like, can you just send somebody to our office? Or can you guys just have these people physically present when I'm coming. And we will have to actually explain to them the effectiveness of what we were actually doing and how it was actually better. So I think one of the most telling for me story was working with a large Fortune 100 client, our first large enterprise client, and we were approaching a deadline. So the customer, the senior level executive at the company sent me an email saying, Hey, can we fly over to Austin? Or can you guys fly over to our site? And I guess I took a very bold stance, and I actually responded back with here's the data that I have, that shows that the collaboration between our teams, as-is is fantastic, and way above the industry average of anybody working in the same office. So I would hate to say this, but I feel that we will add risk in the project by introducing a new variable that we don't know how it's going to play out. And he agreed, and that project became such a huge success, actually, that it was our claim to fame for years to come.

CH:

Yeah. Did you ever have to break the remote only rule? Or did you deliver all of your projects fully remote,

AS:

they early days, we had one project where we did actually have some on site presence. After that it was at least 99% remote. So we always used to call it the remote first culture. So the default would always be remote. And if a real need arises to be at a client site to deal with something we would show up there. So even for that same client, my co founder, Ali did actually fly over and spend some time a few days there on site. But we did not fly the entire team in we did not even consider that as an option.

CH:

Yeah. And when you were having sales, or pre sales conversations with prospective clients was at all completely remote too?

AS:

Yes, nearly all remote, again, remote first. So if a real need arose, we would actually fly out to a client. But that would be very rare occasion. In fact, I always hear stories about consulting company founders being on the plane 24/7, my average of the last three or four years, it was probably one travel a month, maybe one day a month. That was the max.

CH:

Yeah, my experience was very different. So I'm probably much closer to one of those founders that you hear the horror stories about being on the plane all the time. So I do get it. But, you know, I think that it was at least in large part due to the fact that we were really kind of like a hybrid of remote and in person. And we delivered that way too for some of our clients. You know, one of the things I'm always curious about when I hear about these ways of delivering are these ways of operating that are different. Did your competitors pick up on the fact that this was your way of delivering? And did they ever try to use that against you in a competitive setting?

AS:

So I would actually attach it back to an earlier comment, right? It is about being deliberate about culture. And I think you and I can both will violently agree again, that it's also been about deliberate during sales. So frankly, any company that touted themselves as somebody that will fly people in to get the work done, I would not even consider them my competitors. If we are dealing with a client that has an entire remote culture, where they would value as I used to jokingly call it they would drop off a truckload of consultants to your dock. That's not our client. So we would actually finish that conversation and the customer would not be qualified beyond that.

CH:

Yeah. So you you actually use that as a qualification parameter for prospects.

AS:

That's exactly right. And to be actually just an interesting fact, into positioning. One of the things we actually realized was that the customers that were most sensitive to Working with remote teams were the ones that were all co located in a single building, sometimes even on a single floor. So we would, in fact, when we created prospect lists were to pay attention to that. And if you were dealing with a company with multiple offices, really, they may not realize it, but they already are remote. So they would not have any issues with remote. But what says when we were dealing with the company, we did run into one, where literally, the entire IT department was on fourth floor of an office in Dallas, Texas, very clear that that's not going to be a good client should not be the one we should be pursuing in the first place. Thanks to all the information available these days, we could actually build an ideal client profile with that criteria and create prospect lists, knowing that these companies have multiple offices. In fact, clients, especially with offices in multiple countries became some of our best clients, because we will already be we'll meet them exactly where they are.

CH:

Yeah, they don't require convincing because they do it themselves.

AS:

Exactly.

CH:

Now, I do think that what you're saying, though, about clients, or prospects who are starting down that path, but not all the way, there are probably an interesting, you know, needle to thread, because on the one hand, like you can see it in them, right, that my kind of litmus test was, once you're at two buildings, it's too difficult, right? If you're on the fourth floor of one building, and you've got a coworker on the third floor of another building, you're going to send a Slack message, or pick up a phone or send a text message or something, right, you're not going down the elevator, we're walking across a campus going up another elevator. So they're whether that office is across the campus, or in another state or in another country, it's almost it doesn't matter. But they may not have internalized the fact that they have a remote culture yet. So they might still be looking for that kind of comfort that comes from being able to be in person even if they'd never use it.

AS:

That is correct. And in fact, an interesting example, and why we used to use city or different cities as a filter, because folks who would be in into buildings on the same campus would still have the ability to join, like their daily standup in person, very commonly done that. So basically, the way we will look at it is if they already have virtual participants in their daily standup, it will be a fit, if they have zero daily virtual participants in their daily standup and we'll be the first ones introducing a virtual participant, I can completely understand that will be a frustrating experience. And I don't want to be the first virtual participant in any meeting, frankly. So we would walk away from those deals pretty quickly.

CH:

So do you think that this decision about whether you're remote first or in person, is it binary? Like is does it have to be either you're remote or you're in person? Or do you think this hybrid of some people are remote? Some people work in an office? And I'm thinking specifically about services businesses? Is that workable?

AS:

I strongly feel it is workable. So the short answer is yes, I think the most important tenet rather than even getting into remote and non remote is what we were talking about earlier, which is talking about having a culture and owning the culture. And a culture can be built around a strong statement here. But a culture I believe can be built around any of those settings and environments. So it is more about being intentional. The key would be to if let's say you're willing a hybrid culture, owns that culture and figure out how you're going to hit the minimum viable, minimum lovable criteria in that culture. We became a mod only shop and we we created tools and processes around that. If you're a hybrid culture, you can do that if your physical culture, you can do that, too. And I think there is no shortage of companies where people literally sit next to each other hate each other as well. So there's absolutely no data to say remote is harder or hybrid is harder.

CH:

Yeah, I think my maybe strong opinion weakly held on this is I think hybrid, probably is harder. But I think it's harder, because I think, by virtue of the way that people get into it, I think a lot of hybrid culture has probably come about because people aren't deliberate about we're only going to do in person or we're only going to do remote. And so if you feel like you want to support both, and you don't go into it, like you said with a kind of deliberate mindset around how you create it, then you can very easily without even intending to stumble into this way of having these two different remote you know, two different cultures, one that remote people have and one that in person people have and then that leads to a different set of challenges. And so I think to your point, hybrid is doable. So I agree with you on that. I do think it's, it's harder and it's it's easy to get kind of sideways in it if you're not being deliberate about how you create it.

AS:

I agree and no scientific evidence on what I'm about to say. But I actually believe that one of the reasons we were able to succeed with remote This was 10 years ago, was when the initial team decided that even though the the guys who were right in Austin decided that we actually going to be remote So for instance, Ali was literally living three houses down from me. And I think talk about being deliberate, instead of walking over which he eeasily could he preferred to meet each other on Slack and digital media. And that actually really helped, because we could both experience the exact same challenges. So, frankly, I think the same emulation can be done in a hybrid environment where even if, let's just say you have an executive leadership team, if some of them are hybrid, and that some work from home and some will come to the office, I think that'll actually emulate the experience to the leadership team, the challenge would be if all the leadership, everyone comes to the office every day, but then you have office employees who are somewhere mode, I think that's where real challenges begin, because no management can no longer relate to what's actually happening with the teams. So that was very deliberate on our part, to say 100 feet from each other, but we are not walking over.

CH:

Yeah, well, I think like you said, the thing that you can very easily slip into if you're sharing an office is, even if you're super deliberate about, hey, everyone is going to join this meeting on zoom from their office, even though we could all be in a conference room together so that everyone who's remote has the same experience, you're still getting the benefit in the office, from the people that are co located have the random conversations that happen in the hallway conversations. And I think that's the thing that it takes a tremendous amount of discipline to not do that. Because it's so easy to have happen. That happens naturally.

AS:

I fully agree with that and talk about do we like being deliberate about culture? I think one of those things that we had to figure out was the equivalent of hallway conversations in a remote environment. And how do you actually do that? Because that was probably one of the biggest things that confused everybody else was that? Are we going to just completely lose out on the hallway and informal conversation?

CH:

Yeah. So how did you do that?

AS:

Slack was our hallway, it was physically office, we would actually invite our clients to Slack, just so they were all part of our slack as well. So they could see what our office looks like. And the slack activity was a KPI that I used to measure slack Stream Analytics were a very big part of our top level KPIs and measurements. So just to give you an idea, our team would literally have 1000s of kudos flying every month towards each other. A typical active customer channel on Slack would have about 10,000 messages exchanged every month, which would fall outweigh in some cases, if even if people are co located. Sometimes people don't talk that much. So we actually, again, it's comes down to being very deliberate having real world targets, talking about in just taking a very deliberate approach towards that. But yeah, that's how we emulated and then we would have just to break it down a little further. Beyond slack, we did have informal events, virtual events, we will actually get together and have lunch, just everyone company orders lunch for everyone has delivered where folks are. And we would actually have tried a game days, we would get together and play virtual games. So there was some deliberate effort and some creativity that went into making it work.

CH:

And that's great. On the slack topic just a little bit more. So did you look at or did you think about the amount of messages that were happening in either public or private channels as being better or different than direct messages? Like, I guess I'm wondering, did you put a different lens on DMs versus channel based communications just again, to have that kind of like hallway, group culture present?

AS:

So culture was such that we would refer wherever possible to go public rather than direct message? So yes, I would actually look at that as if the direct message percentages are going above something is going wrong, because we have somehow something in the culture has changed. So yes, I would actually I did use to monitor that as a KPI on percentage of direct messages versus public messages.

CH:

And when people came into the company, was there some kind of explicit communication and like the employee handbook or something, or the onboarding, about how to use Slack? Or was that something that people kind of picked up by living in the culture,

AS:

we did have a very long document that we call the flexible culture recipe or culture book. And that did outline some of these very soft elements of the culture and slack and how to use Slack. And when we use Slack, even versus say, jump on a call, we're all laid out in there. Makes sense. And it was an by the way, I should maybe one, one emphasis it was not the employee handbook. Employee Handbook always kind of comes across as a very boring document. This was actually a very fun document with fun pictures, and Smiley's and emojis all over the place. This was just telling people how we behave as a company.

CH:

Well, maybe just one more question on this before we start to wrap up. So if someone's considering building a remote work environment, you've already touched on the importance of being deliberate about it and thinking through it, but are there three things things that they could take away from this conversation or your experiences of what they should do to be successful without?

AS:

I think we've touched on all three at this point deliberate is definitely one. But let's get make it a little more tangible, maybe as a response to your question. So I would highly recommend writing down what you expect us the culture. So the flex seven culture book is actually my most prized possession from flex seven, as a company, I still still puts a smile on my face when I look at the document. And very, very helpful. So I think being deliberate to me then turns into let's it, writing it down, not just talking about it. In a building of remote culture, it's even more important to write it down, I believe, although I think it's important important in every setting, but even more important in a remote culture. The second also something we have touched upon, which is to truly be folks who are creating the culture need to be in a similar environment. So I think hybrid physical virtual, you want them to be living the same experience, so they understand the challenges. And that deliberation is actually coming from real experience, not just a lab experiment, if you will. And the third piece we have also touched upon, which is the cycle of communication, you have to be more deliberate because the Hallway Conversations are not there. So connecting people with each other one on one, connecting people across the organization with each other, connecting them back with HIV frequently, with leadership very frequently, I used to have one on ones with everyone in the team at a lower frequency that I could sustain some of those things, you have to replicate the hallway conversations, if you will, to be honest with you, I would just make a slightly controversial statement here. I actually believe that the deliberate way of connecting people was far more effective than Hallway Conversations. Because you have no measurement, no control and no organization around them. We were able to do it, I believe a lot better to be honest with having an actual program and plan on how we actually make that work and measuring success of that as we went.

CH:

Yeah, I think one of the things that happens automatically, or almost, you know, for free, so to speak, is that if you're deliberate about doing it digitally, these conversations can become much more legible in the sense that they're documented, and they can be written down or shared or digested in ways that Hallway Conversations honestly can't. And it becomes really hard to keep people in sync with those hallway conversations. Whereas if you've got this kind of prescriptive way that you go about doing it in a digital setting, then people can kind of read up on things that they missed in Slack, or read up on something that that happened digitally, that there's an actual kind of written record of

AS:

I completely agree with that. That's definitely how I think it transpired.

CH:

Yes. Cool. Well, one more thing before we wrap. So we haven't talked at all about Vixul. And what you're doing now, so maybe it'd be good for you to give a little bit of an overview of what you've been doing after Flux7 and some of the exciting things that you've got going on with Vixul?

AS:

Absolutely. So Flux7 was a great learning experience for us. We went and built a services organization uncovered a lot of these lessons, sometimes the hard way. And other times, we just got lucky around the importance of things like culture, but then how do you build the sales side, the delivery side, the cash management, everything was a learning for us because we came from a technical engineering background. So when I was designing what's going to be the next venture went back to rule number one of entrepreneurship, which is go back and scratch your own itch. So we knew that there is actually a challenge with early stage services founders, that there is practically no institutional help or even references available to guide them on how to make the decision, right. I think you hear the sentence services companies are hard to scale all all the time. But nobody ever then finishes that sentence by saying, and this is how to do it better. So we decided to finish that sentence and say, well, let's come up with a way to do it better there is there is knowledge out there, but it's all scattered. It needs to be institutionalized. There's people like yourself, Chris, who actually have built services companies have very strong opinions and know how to do it. But so let's actually build a platform where all of that knowledge and expertise could be gathered and then made available to folks who needed the most and have the least access which is the early stage services founders. So all that combined and putting it into a real model. We have built accelerator, which is the first startup accelerator to our knowledge in the world, which focuses are exclusively on IT services companies and early stage, which we define as under $6 million in revenue. were carefully crafted to before even the private equity gets interested in the company's idea there is as you bring those folks in take them through a 90 day boot. very much inspired by Y Combinator which is a model company and help them we have adopted the Y Combinator model over to the services company. So just help them, turn the tide within the 90 days, create some tangible outcomes and then continue to help them for about a couple of two year period after the boot camp so that they can see the actual results of the efforts.

CH:

I love it. I think one of the things that we talked about when you were first telling me about this is something that you and I both experienced, which is there's no end to the articles online about how to run or start a product business. But there's a real large gap of the same types of articles for services businesses, so you're you're helping to fill that gap. Right?

AS:

Can you give me actually even the few articles you find typically talking about the the challenges, and I've written by folks who have not necessarily built services companies, but are just talking about what's wrong with the services as a business model. So I guess I'm a completely bullish on the services business in the IT sector, I do believe it plays not just an important role, but frankly, is an enabler for all the product business that's happening to, and hence I just started double down and let's actually make this into an ecosystem.

CH:

Great. So for people who want to learn more, where do they learn more about Vixul.

AS:

So the first source would be our website, which is vixul.com. You can also look at our LinkedIn page, which has information and a lot of the most recent updates, and always feel free to reach out to us. You can get to that through LinkedIn or through email.

CH:

Awesome. Well, Aater, thanks for the conversation today. This has been great. I really appreciate you sharing your insights and some of the lessons learned along the way for culture and services businesses.

AS:

Likewise, well, thank you very much for having me.

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Chris Hart