How communication & great people are pillars of high-performance at Wattpad

By: Allen Lau, CEO & Co-founder, Wattpad

BeLikeAStartup
May 10, 2016 · 6 min read

As CEO of Wattpad, I spend the majority of my time on three things: making sure there’s cash in the bank, setting the company strategy and vision and hiring the best people I can. As a business owner, cash flow is certainly a big focus but success is more often defined by my focus on the latter two responsibilities.

My to do list can be infinite. I can’t do everything I want to do with the company myself. And this only covers the things I know about. Now that we’re at 120 people, I try to delegate as many tasks as possible. Even the simplest of tasks. It’s something I have to be very disciplined about, otherwise I’d be in the weeds all day long. So my philosophy is: hire the best people and tell them what you want to achieve and why and they will figure out the how. Then, you have to trust them to do it. When you hire the right people, and they understand the vision and believe in it, you have a high performing organization.

Hire the best people you can

Everyone of course tries to hire the best people and we’re no different at Wattpad. I believe an organization is built upon its people, and in order to be successful, you need to hire top people. However, this doesn’t tell you the whole story, so I want to be clear. By “top people”, I don’t mean that they have to be the biggest and brightest developers or marketers or salespeople in the country.

The single most important qualifier I look for in talent is cultural fit. Everyone at Wattpad fully buys in and believes in the company vision and lives its values. We are the same in that light, but we are a diverse group and everyone brings something unique to the table. But this is the first building block of aligning an organization around values, vision and strategy. It’s this that I want to spend a bit more time elaborating on.

Communicating values and vision

There’s a study out from IBM looking at millennials and different generations in the workforce. One finding, across all generations, is that employees understanding of corporate vision and strategy is lacking. The percentage of employees which agree to the following statements (40–60%) is shockingly high.

  • I don’t fully understand my organization’s business strategy
  • I don’t fully understand my manager’s expectations of me as an employee
  • I don’t fully understand what my customers want
  • I don’t fully understand my organization’s brand

I know this isn’t the case at Wattpad because I invest a lot of time making sure everyone at Wattpad has internalized our vision and our values. It starts with values because that’s the foundation that defines how we operate, who we hire, etc. From there, it’s about making sure people understand the vision and that there’s transparency on how well we’re progressing against the vision and strategy. Here’s how I accomplish this.

Values are at the heart of Wattpad

Four years ago we started to approach our culture in a more conscientious way. We wrote down our company values to describe the culture that we have and invested in a lengthy process of refining these to the final seven, which we’ve listed on our website: https://www.wattpad.com/life/. These are our values:

  • User Obsessed;
  • Team Player;
  • Resourceful;
  • Sense of Ownership;
  • Positivity;
  • Trailblazer; and
  • High Performance

Our values are practiced every single day and are at the core of everything we do.

Over-communicate to make sure employees internalize values, vision and strategy

I think it’s important to over-communicate the company’s objectives, goals and the mission and strategy. It sounds like an obvious thing but it actually takes a lot of time from me and from the rest of the leadership team to make sure that everyone within our organization is aligned. Nowadays, people don’t just follow orders. Employees aren’t robots. They have to understand “why”. Transparency is very important as it reinforces the “why”, so this is something I focus on everyday.

Here are a few things I do to make sure every employee has a deep understanding of everything that’s important to the success of Wattpad.

All-hands meeting

Every week Wattpad conducts an “all-hands” meeting where one or two teams talk about the sales goals, objectives, and what we’re looking to achieve the next quarter. From time to time, we’ll do an AMA (Ask Me Anything) where everyone is welcomed to provide questions in advance (anonymously, if desired, using Wattpad) and we answer them during the AMAs.

I share an internal blog post daily

Everyday I write an entry into Wattpad that’s only visible to our employees. I use the platform to clarify our goals and strategy, to maintain transparency, and to reinforce our values. For example, the other day I clarified our value of positivity. I was finding that positivity was being used as an excuse not to address problems or issues with other teams. I wanted to make sure that these issues were being discussed, and that people weren’t afraid to have tough conversations for fear it was perceived as “negative.” Another recent post I shared was about how we can potentially scale our revenue based on what other companies are doing.

I typically receive about 5–10 comments from employees per entry, while some entries can generate up to 80 comments. The purpose is to ensure everyone at the company is familiar with and comfortable using the product, and to create a sense of community within the company. It’s a way for me to connect with the organization on something that’s top of mind for me on a daily basis.

One-on-ones

I also conduct 30-minute, one-on-one meetings with every employee at the company. I purposely limit the one-on-ones to 30 minutes to ensure that we use the time very effectively. Since we now have just over 100 people, this usually takes me about six months to complete.

The meetings provide a safe environment for each employee to channel what they are thinking, while giving me another opportunity to clarify any company goals or objectives. It’s also a great tool to build relationships with every employee and to learn what they are doing day-to-day. Not on a detailed level, but enough to get context to help me make better decisions.

Approximately 80 percent of the meetings are a conversation, and not everything we discuss needs to be actionable. In fact, what we discuss during that time is entirely up to the employee. Most employees want to ask me questions, so I request that everyone shares them with me in advance so that I don’t spend time thinking about the answer, I have it ready. The only thing I ask in every meeting is what their biggest problem is and how I can help fix it, and also what they think of the company’s performance. I always learn something during these opportunities.

Conclusion

I’ve been told that it’s rare for a CEO to spend so much time communicating with each employee on a personal level, but I think it’s incredibly important and not something I’m willing to sacrifice. The reason why we’re successful is a result of our employees and the leadership team’s commitment to communicating the company’s values, goals, and vision every chance we get. Investing time in communication and our culture is how we attract talent, keep employees around long-term, and ensure the future success of our company.

Allen Lau

Allen Lau

As CEO and co-founder of Wattpad, Allen Lau leads the company’s efforts to transform the reading and writing experience of millions of people around the world. Prior to Wattpad, Allen was the co-founder of FeedM8, a mobile advertising company that was acquired in 2008. In 2001, he co-founded Tira Wireless where he helped leading brands optimize content for mobile delivery.

Be Like A Startup

A blog based on the insights of leaders from successful startups and enterprises on the key ingredients to build an organization that outperforms

BeLikeAStartup

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A blog of interviews with successful leaders about what it takes to build a high performance culture

Be Like A Startup

A blog based on the insights of leaders from successful startups and enterprises on the key ingredients to build an organization that outperforms

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