I’m experimenting with some slightly more personal essays. This is the first. In part it’s about my experience changing social classes in America. It’s also about startups.
I like to help people. My dad set this example every day: if you can help, you should. When I was a kid he’d often pick up hitch hikers and engage them in conversation. There was never a sense of fear or pity — these people were not less than us or unworthy of our friendship just because they also needed a ride. As an adult I realized it wasn’t just a behavior born of his compassion and empathy but also of our social class. I once read this from a study on fear: rich people are afraid of the homeless; working class people are afraid of becoming homeless. That empathy gap is really a chasm between the social classes in America.
My grandfather lived in a tent as a child. He never graduated from high school and worked nights in a cotton mill to provide for his family. My dad did much better than my grandfather and worked full time supporting our family (often on the night shift) while also earning his Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, and PhD. He’s now a nurse educator. He still helps everyone he can and doesn’t consider any task below him.
I adopted that mindset. I like to help and befriend people, and I know that nothing moves you forward in life like hard work. Like my dad, I worked my way into a very different social class than the one in which I was born. I started my career $60,000 in debt from university, with no safety net. Now I make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, own a home, and live a life of incredible privilege and access. I’ve been very lucky and I’ve worked hard. But I know I’m not more deserving than a single parent working two jobs and driving Uber on the weekends to make ends meet. Luck is not evenly distributed.
My experience living in most of America’s social classes has taught me an enormous amount. I’ve been able to observe what “hard work” means at every level of income and the invisible rules of each class. As my privilege and access increase, I have more moments of what I can only describe as class vertigo. I’ll be in a mundane social situation and something will happen that unbalances me completely. These moments take me out of my current social class and drop me back to where I was born. It’s like Pretty Woman, but if Richard Gere was born working class and was sometimes still blindsided by the social mores of the upper crust.
There’s a specific mundane situation I repeatedly find myself in: someone in my current social class assumes that I work at whatever store or restaurant we’re both in. Eventually they discover that I don’t work there and are incredibly, authentically embarrassed. They apologize profusely to me for their mistake. The common thread across these various experiences hasn’t been what I’m wearing or even the context itself, but my behavior toward the people around me. I am helpful and friendly in a way that is sometimes perceived as lower class.
A few years ago I helped an older man in a wheelchair at Whole Foods. He was looking forlornly at the yogurts out of his reach, so I offered to get one for him. He said that his doctor wanted him to eat less sugar, so I spoke with him and compared the sugar content of yogurts for a few minutes until a Whole Foods team member walked by. At that point, the man realized I wasn’t wearing a green smock and did not work there. He was embarrassed and apologized to me, clearly frustrated. At the time I didn’t see what was embarrassing about it, though I felt badly about how uncomfortable he was. After all, I had offered my help.
Another moment was more recent. I attended an exclusive event at a nice restaurant, and a fellow guest assumed I was a member of the staff. She and I rode up to the event in a private elevator, along with one of the waitresses. During the short trip, I joked around with the waitress about something and learned the elevator code from her so I could get up and down without an attendant. I exited the elevator with the other guest, and it wasn’t until I picked up my glass of wine and asked her what she did that she realized I wasn’t a member of the staff. She apologized profusely and said how embarrassing it was that she thought I worked there. I exchanged a look with the waitress, who was no more than three feet away from us, silently ashamed she was overhearing this exchange.
The thing that embarrasses me about these interactions is not the mistake itself. It is that the apologies inevitably happen in full view of the actual staff: How embarrassing, that I thought you worked here, they say. How embarrassing to work here, I hear. This is not their intention, of course, but they don’t know that I was born into a family and community that sees any steady job as an unambiguously Good Thing. I cannot imagine being embarrassed about it.
This decidedly working class mindset is what we call an “ownership mentality” in startups. Especially in the early stages of building a company, you want to hire people who have a helpful mindset: people who don’t consider themselves “too good” for any task that moves the team forward. People who never tell you that something is not their job.
One of my most productive days at any startup was the one I spent working on the floor of a Walmart near Bentonville, Arkansas. At the time, my job was leading product for the mobile workforce company, Gigwalk, and I was in Bentonville to merchandise product side-by-side with the hourly gig workers who would use our software. That day was fun and productive, and I learned an enormous amount about what my team needed to do.
A few months later I was back in that same Walmart, watching our customer’s internal education team conduct usability tests to inform the training curriculum they’d need before rolling out our app. By the end of the day they decided they didn’t need to train their workforce at all. The app was intuitive enough for everyone to use.
I’ve come back to those days in Arkansas in light of these other moments, because I don’t think I would have done it if I was embarrassed to work at Walmart. It never occurred to me to have someone else do the work so I could do something seemingly more important behind a desk. The fastest way to learn was to experience the workflow I was trying to digitize, so that’s what I did.
One of the least-celebrated but most impactful reasons for Slack’s success is the company’s service-centric approach. This is obvious in the joyful service of Slack’s Twitter voice, the quality customer experience and the intuitive product design. Everyone who worked at Slack early on was required to take a shift helping customers in Zendesk, a program called Everyone does Support. We often talked about approaching our work in a manner that modeled the service industry: Slack was our restaurant, and our customers were the guests we served.
We referenced this quote from Charles Eames, from whom we adopted the guest/host model:
“One of the things we hit upon was the quality of a host. That is, the role of the architect, or the designer, is that of a very good, thoughtful host, all of whose energy goes into trying to anticipate the needs of his guests — those who enter the building and use the objects in it. We decided that this was an essential ingredient in the design of a building or a useful object.”
The host mindset is also the service mindset, or the ownership mentality. It is key to designing and building truly intuitive products, and running great companies. It is software-as-a-service in its most poetic form: the anticipation of your customer’s needs so that you can be there to meet them, happy to help.