I visited 4 Bay Area tech companies in 4 days to steal their best ideas

Is working for a Bay Area tech company everything I thought it would be when I packed my life into three boxes and moved across the country 1.5 years ago to be employee number 4 at a hardware startup? Jury’s still out.

My company isn’t one of those 400 people, 3 offices around the country businesses that everyone you met at that networking event last week promises is still just a startup (but congratulations on your open workspace). I’m the Marketing Manager at Wearhaus — we make Bluetooth headphones that let you sync up whatever you are listening to with other people around you. Our focus is on making sharing music easier than ever and seeing to it that you never split earbuds again.

My company is seven full-time employees in one room. The CEO is 23, only seven years younger than the oldest member of the team. And we freaking crush it.

We create incredible content. We Slack each other gifs. We demo like pros. We fight over the air conditioning. We’ve built something bigger than ourselves and work towards a shared goal every day.

But we sure as shit don’t know it all. Our team’s real world experience is admittedly lacking due to the sheer number of years in the workforce.

This hasn’t held us back as much as it could because we’re quick, confident decision makers who don’t need to waste time climbing ideas and budget approvals up the proverbial ladder.

Just because our company doesn’t spontaneously combust every day does not mean there isn’t constant room for improvement. I decided to consciously take time away from my desk to visit more established companies and learn what works best from the people who already know.

Why reinvent the wheel when you can be like ‘Oh hey wheel! Waddup?’

You know when people say ‘You should come by the office sometime!’ but they don’t really mean it at all? I waited until four of those suckers made me the offer and scheduled a week of company visits in San Francisco and Oakland that would change my organizational business outlook forever.

The Plan

  • Visit four companies in four days
  • Get a tour and meet the team
  • Use this as a research opportunity — I wanted to find out office music-listening habits and how Wearhaus can help
  • Give a product demo
  • Ask about any tricks/apps/strategies they use to improve workflow and time management
  • Beers? Beers!

The Why

My goal was to take back new tips and processes to my company that we would not have thought up on our own but can easily implement. In the process, something bigger happened.

I created much stronger business relationships and de facto fans of my brand while learning more than I ever could from sitting behind my laptop.

To be completely honest, I thought this would be a good, harmless way to fill my time when I had nothing to do.

What started as a ploy to make me look busy turned into the most business-enriching week of my year.

I went on tour. And I learned a lot.

The Companies

Monday @ 2:30pm
What they do: Hardware and software solutions that make it super easy to connect your machine to any payment method
# of employees: 3
How I know them: Skeeball. More on that later…
Location: SoMa

The first company I visited was also the one with the smallest amount of employees, which means even more to discuss. Plus DotDashPay came out of the same hardware incubator as Wearhaus, PCH International’s Highway1, so we’re bros.

With a prime SF location, the first notable thing about DotDashPay was that they share a large, open space with other companies, most of which have robots roaming around. Walking into the space was like being smacked in the face by a Silicon Valley stereotype…but, you know, the good kind.

With their fair share of successes while still getting started, DotDashPay clearly has a vision that business owners and VCs can get behind. They do that by making every single minute count as they build a company from scratch.

The motivated trio stays on track with a tool some of the biggest companies in the world use called OKR (objectives and key results). It’s a system of setting abstract goals first, then measurable objectives, plus monthly updates on progress (something we’re now considering within departments).

What really stuck with me was DotDashPay’s ever present desire to listen to music together in an open environment that is too collaborative for audio speakers. These are music fiends that make playlists together and listen all day.

This showed that there is an audience for Wearhaus products, and it’s a welcome reminder that what we do in our little room matters. Whether you are freelancing at a cafe or starting a company, there is a need for more flexibility when it comes to music sharing.

2/3 of the DotDashPay squad getting a taste of wireless audio sharing

Joey the Cat
Monday @ 5:00pm
What they do: Produce team-building events, rent vintage arcade games for special events and bars around California
# of employees: 4
How I know them: We met the old-fashioned way…at a networking event!
Location: The Mission District

I hopped on BART to the Mission, like a good little Bay Arean, to the second company on my tour. Not a tech company in the traditional sense, Joey the Cat is a vintage gaming company that caters to the tech sphere.

A multi-pronged (the pivot is strong) business, their holy grail is a somewhat secretive and exalted skeeball warehouse available for rent to throw the coolest freaking tech party you ever overheard someone talking about.

The skee life.

Lucky for me, I’m friends with these dudes and have rolled many a skeeball hundo in my day. But I always wanted to temporarily exchange my friendship hat for a business visor to learn some of the nitty-gritty.

We dished big about their new, really well-done website and the interesting purpose behind the upgrade.

The nature of their business is dependent on killer word-of-mouth recommendations. So their website wasn’t created to capture cookies and retarget, like many tech machines around the Bay (and the world). It’s to ensure that people who search for them get major, instant validation on what they’ve heard.

And it’s working, because expectations are everything.

Wednesday @ 4:30pm
What they do: Music streaming and automated music recommendation service BUT YOU ALREADY KNEW THAT
# of employees: 2,000+ 
How I know them: Twitter friendship
Location: Uptown Oakland

Oh, that’s right. I mixed it up from the small startups and got into one of the big guys.

As a team member at a fledgling music tech startup, Pandora is one of few holy grails. I weaseled my way into the famed Oakland building through a Twitter homie who I had yet to meet IRL. But what better way to kick off a blossoming friendship than with a tour of your mom’s favorite app?

Everything about visiting a company of this magnitude made it different.

After I got my ‘backstage pass’ and signed in on the iPad that took a picture of me, I saw a new employee stop by reception, super excited to pick up his business cards, mere seconds before going to the kitchen to make himself a bowl of cereal. I just witnessed the Bay Area work/life balance perfectly captured in five seconds.

The experience was eons above the others in terms of company organization and employee comfort. My main takeaway was a real commitment to office aesthetics. That type of internal marketing comes with the territory when you become a multi-million dollar company, but the precision was still remarkable and created a truly esoteric working environment.

Every wall was covered in original, music-inspired artwork. From a word search featuring the most popular words used in songs to Tupac-inspired breakout rooms, every wall was used as an opportunity for creativity and an excellent way to create internal branding and generally good mojo.

Pandora showed me how far we, or any company, could possibly grow.

TBH, I have never even stepped foot inside a company that big. It’s well outside of my comprehension to need that many employees to keep the wheel turning. But the emphasis on the employee experience means these people were hired with purpose and are the best at what they do.

Yes, there is absolutely no way you can know everyone who works there, which really sucks.

But it’s the price you want to pay when you are a successful business — we can’t fit the whole team in one room forever. That’s not growth.

Thursday @ 2:30pm
What they do: Support for crowdfunding projects including e-commerce, surveys and fulfillment services
# of employees: 13
How I know them: You’re not going to want to hear this but…skeeball
Location: The Mission District

Thirteen hardworking, orange-slice eating kids above the famed Brick & Mortar in the Mission, BackerKit is a smart crew with a series of good heads on shoulders.

Their business is support for crowdfunding campaigns after the funding is complete — this means they are at the forefront of awesome projects before they make it big.

This squad knows what’s happening on the Kickstarter and IndieGoGo landscapes every day and have enough experience to predict what will be a hit. From all my visits, this is a company with a conscious finger on the pulse of what’s new. We talked about everything from my phone case that I got through a Kickstarter project to the recent changes at Bento without skipping a beat.

BackerKit’s team was so aligned, it made me think that not only is thirteen not an unlucky number, it might be the perfect amount of people to work with.

They have an office manager which, as I look around at my six coworkers, seems like a dream and something that could drastically improve all of our working lives. So now we have a new and quick goal for the future ٩(˘◡˘)۶.

BackerKit at work

All of their desks connected in a straight line didn’t lead to distraction, instead it bred a supportive team and completely efficient communication. That communication obviously translates to heavy Slack use, as well as Front. Front is a wildly helpful email app that I had not heard of before visiting BackerKit, just the type of time-saving tool I was looking for on this journey.

It’s the best part of what the Bay Area has to offer: a great idea + a great team + hard work = success

The Takeaways

I ended each visit with a Wearhaus shirt, a smile, and an open invitation to visit our office in downtown Berkeley.

The real, actionable ideas I walked away with for Wearhaus were huge. I wrote a full report for my team outlining which new practices were most applicable and what the next steps are.

But the bigger impact from this tour came in the form of intra-office inspiration and a creative jump start.

I’m officially naming this type of company-visiting tour the Dana Circuit and I’m officially recommending it to you. If you want your business to succeed, look outside yourself. Look outside yourself a whole bunch in one week and it just might be the most you learn all year.

But seriously please do this and tell your friends because this is the type of timeless learning they don’t teach in textbooks. Wait, let’s get the Dana Circuit in textbooks! Cool, so it’s been decided.

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