The Path to Jellyfish, a Slack bot that improves company culture

Every Friday, AdRoll hosts an afternoon all hands. The agenda is loosely:

  • Brief update on state of business
  • Q&A
  • Pardon Mike French
  • Moment of Zen

(As an ex-employee, I am trying to not reveal their company secrets, so I’ll abstain from explaining what “Pardon Mike French” is.)

The relevant agenda topic for this post is the Q&A, fondly known as Rollywood Squares. Each week Aaron would send out a link to get questions from employees and leadership would answer them the best they could. Questions on people’s FUD were encouraged and anonymity was commonplace.

For the first few years of my employment, this was a Google Moderator link, but then one month Google decided to shut the product down.

At the time, my desk was next to Aaron’s, and he asked me if I knew of a replacement. I didn’t, and some brief searching around didn’t yield any appropriate options, the nearest was Poll Anywhere, which is a fantastic product but really in no way a viable alternative for the kind of collaborative Q&A that AdRoll was hosting.

A few weeks later, we had a coincidentally well timed engineering hack-week. A fellow acqui-hired colleague — Matt Farnell — and I decided that developing a Google Moderator equivalent would be an interesting week long project, so we built what we called RollHands:

RollHands v1

RollHands v1 was built on top of Telescope. Our requirements were modest:

  • Google authentication
  • Allow posting of questions
  • Allow voting on questions
  • Allow anonymous questions
  • Launch in a week (hack-week constraint)

An example of RollHands: in this instance, AdRoll was hosting a moderator session with state senate candidate Jane Kim. (AdRoll HQ used to be on 6th and Mission, hence the rather direct questions about homelessness!!)

As you can see, it was fairly hacked together. Sorting questions, for example, didn’t really make a lot of sense in this context.

It did however receive widespread usage. It was not only used every Friday in San Francisco, but also for other meetings, big — such as the monthly company wide meeting — and small — such as for hosting Q&A for offsites.

We were always a little embarrassed about the product though, since it was very duct taped together. It also weighed heavily on me that we allowed anonymous questions, but because we had hacked the product together so quickly, we really couldn’t verify that the questions were truly anonymous.

After six months or so of having RollHands v1, a few things happened that allowed us to re-visit the project:

  • I decided to move into Marketing, and thus Adam Berke was kind enough to give me some of his marketing budget for experiments
  • I met an exceptional team of entrepreneurial contract developers.

RollHands v2

From the learnings of RollHands, we improved the specification:

The biggest change we decided to make was to integrate RollHands with Slack. This seems so obvious in 2018 that it barely seems worth explaining, but the reasoning was that so much engagement was happening within the AdRoll Slack network, that we wanted to harness that for meeting engagement. (I was also the #1 Slack user within AdRoll, and Matt and I were the ones that convinced AdRoll to adopt Slack in the first place, but I digress…)

We kept the asking of questions outside of Slack…

Asking questions was kept outside of Slack because they had not released their modals API yet.

… but brought the voting of questions into Slack:

Slack questions are automagically posted in the relevant Slack channel, as defined by whoever created the moderator board.

This allowed users to react to questions in real time: they could upvote, downvote, leave emoji reactions, and create threads to discuss the questions.

What we found from this was that engagement went through the roof. Many questions (such as asking for free lunches, free sweaters, free socks, free hats) had 50+ upvotes: this often meant that sometimes over half the participants in a 100 person meeting had engaged with a question. That’s a big freaking deal.

Around the same time, we started to get more requests to improve RollHands. Moderated questions, better auditing, more analytics, and so on — at one point the Adrian, the AdRoll Director of IT asked us if we could give him administrator access so that he could clean up RollHands — we awkwardly realised that we had never even built such functionality.

Graduating AdRoll

It was also around now that I decided to leave AdRoll, and after talking to a bunch of different companies and joining a hyper growth startup, I realised that the participatory culture of AdRoll was a very unique and special attribute of AdRoll.

Many of these dots started to connect —

  • Aaron Bell has become something of a Marie Kondo for company culture, and actually had companies asking to use our janky RollHands on his travels
  • We’d seen first hand the value RollHands brought to culture and communication
  • With me leaving, RollHands was probably going to eventually fall over due to lack of maintenance
  • Slack had conveniently greatly matured their APIs in the past 12 months, and now had nifty modals.
  • Other companies aren’t like AdRoll.

— and we decided to graduate RollHands from AdRoll and develop it as a standalone application.

Matt and I reached out to our same development agency and hired them to develop a legitimate SaaS RollHands product. We also expanded the product specification again:

  • Use absolutely no code, no assets, no nothing from previous AdRoll owned RollHands (hi, AdRoll Group Legal)
  • Become a “Slack first” application, and migrate all capabilities natively within Slack
  • Become a legitimate SaaS product.

jellyfish is born

Couldn’t have said it better! … courtesy of Mihir, VP of Product @ AdRoll

jellyfish makes your company more transparent. Your employees will be more engaged, more collaborative and stronger believers in your company vision. We know this, because we’ve spent the last 4 years refining this concept.

Want early access? Register here.