It’s been over one year I build Kulkul — an excellent software development agency. This journey includes grooming the team from the ground up. There are lots of ups and downs. There are lots of mistakes I learn and there are successful decisions I take as well. Today I want to share the 5 most important things I learn that I believe if I know it earlier I would be way ahead of my game. If you are an agency owner I hope it can help you. I already experienced this the hard way, I hope by learning what I experienced you can skip the hard parts and go with the fun parts.
People are key aspects in business and as a people-driven company, Kulkul committed to building a supportive workplace that helps our people to grow. While we are looking for the right people to join us, we also want to be the best workplace to work for people who believe in our mission of bringing high-quality software to the masses and in doing so inspiring other software engineers to always raise the bar.
The first tip I want to bring up is on building a cult. As a mission-driven and early-stage company we really need people who are committed fully to building Kulkul. Our strategy was always based on our WHY. We are a young and agile company and what we always offer to our aspiring team members is our goal, mission, and what Kulkul has to offer them to help them grow.
We have a goal to be the #1 software development partner in South East Asia in 2023 and our mission is to raise the bar of the South East Asia tech ecosystem. We want to build a tech ecosystem not only in Indonesia but beyond that. Also for our employees, our commitment is always giving them an arena for them to experiment. We want to give them psychological safety in contributing to Kulkul in whatever area they’re interested in or have the ability to contribute to. So if someone is interested in realizing our goal and mission and/or looking for a psychologically safe environment to experiment and learn from our/your mistakes, Kulkul is the place.
I think building a cult can be implemented in various ways. For example, at Kulkul we do the following.
- Me as a Founder and Chief Kul always looking for sponsor/investor that really believe in our potential.
- Sometimes our employee joins us (founders) because they believe in our potential as an entrepreneur.
- When hiring we are looking for attitude, aptitude, and also eagerness to helps Kulkul to achieve our mission and purposes. There are aspiring team members that reach us to offer help with no priority in financial rewards.
- Provide ways for our employees to grow. We always sponsor our employee who needs to subscribe to an online course or any learning material for example.
- Provide ways for our employees to experiment without micro-managing them. I myself sometimes fall into the trap of micro-managing our employee because we think we can do better ourself, but shifting from command-control to empowerment mindset helps me to make our employee feels empowered and helps me to spend more time in building sustainable business and less in micro-managing people.
“success attracts success.” — a good quote on the internet
I believe that success attracts success, and I found out that a successful acquisition of good employee leads me to another good employee that we hire.
I want to tell you a story of my own. Back in 2017 when I’m looking for my first job, I interviewed in multiple places, and one of them is Midtrans. And the interview process is one of the best interview processes I ever experienced until today. I was only a village boy who makes my way to a good university in Indonesia, get an internship in the previous year at Microsoft, and wondering if I get a good full-time job in Jakarta (the capital city of Indonesia) after graduation.
I submit my polished CV to Midtrans and I have 3 phone interviews before they asked me to fly to Jakarta to have another 3 interviews. A really good thing about them is they cover flight tickets back and forth from Yogyakarta to Jakarta. Something I found really rare when I interviewed with multiple tech companies in Jakarta.
I remember I take an economy-ticket train from Yogyakarta to Jakarta (10 hours travel) to take two interviews. I barely have sleep and when I need to pray in Musholla at the train station, the place is not that good and there are lots of mosquitoes. It is so much different when I ride a plane to go to Jakarta for a shorter time and for more comfortable travel. I call that people experience. And years later when I build Kulkul I want to be that company that provides the best people experience in aspects that we really care about like people development.
People are our biggest assets.
At Kulkul we really care about our employee’s personal growth, we will pay for any online course or training needed for them to do their job better. We will mentor them to be the bar raiser, someone who raises the bar in any situation. Anything from financial support, mentoring, their health, and their happiness at work — all that is things we really care about. People are our biggest assets.
Don’t Hire Friends (If possible)
I will tell another story, this story is about hiring friends. When I was in college my best friend and I has a similar passion. Let’s call him Kim (not his real name). Kim has always asked me to work with him together in various places. Sometimes it worked, but most of the time are not. We both considerably have strong skills in engineering, and we decided to enter a line-follower robot competition. So we spent days and nights to create our own version of line-follower robots. In the first competition, we build the hardware, but the robot is barely working. We didn’t attend the race. I don’t remember how many times we try but the line follower robot has never been a reality.
I remember we finally join the line follower robot race together, but it was very funny. I remember we finally have working hardware, but we are clueless about making the line follower algorithm working. And finally, the race day is coming and we barely have a working robot. So we brought our friends working robot. Turned out we can’t make the software working again. So we enter the race but the robot failed to run and it was not even our hardware. However, surprisingly we win the best design category.
Since that day there is plenty of time we try to work together in a venture, but none of them are working. We realized that we best work as a friend not as a team because it is hard to keep us accountable if we work in a friend-mode, we need to hold ourselves accountable and try to achieve our shared goals as a team especially in an entrepreneurial setting.
I made mistakes in the early days of Kulkul by hiring friends and it is clearly not working. And I finally let them go after 3 months of working together. Working with friends is hard and it is easier better to not do it.
Many of the good hires at Kulkul come from referrals. I believe referrals can be a shortcut to good talent if done right. When I accepting candidate from referrals, I will not process them just because they are referred by my colleague. I still considered all the other aspect like whether or not he/she believe in what we are doing.
Aristotle once said
“The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Referrals just a way to get a shortcut to candidates that might fit your needs, but other considerations that you use to assess candidates still apply. The good thing about referrals is your referee can have more information about candidates and you can get more data points. Referrals are also a good way to utilize your friend, for not hiring them but asking them if they have co-workers in the past that match our requirements and have the attitude and interest similar to what Kulkul (or your Company) have.
Hire Slowly, Fire Quickly
How about if the various tips I gave still resulting in a bad hire? My guidance is always this principle of hire slowly but fires quickly. For us, Kulkul is designed to be as slim as possible. So our principle is to hire slowly, and keep our team lean and moving fast, if it happens that we hire people that contaminate our progress we will fire them as fast as possible with good compensation.
We fire underperformed once when Kulkul is just an idea to replicate FrontendMasters, we need to stop our contract with our early team member. And decided to stay small for a while. In February our team is 4 people, but from March to August we only 2 people that includes me and one other engineer. We stay that way for 5 months and able to achieve much, and then in August when we have needs to help more clients, finally we add more people and become what Kulkul is now having about 9 team members.
The principle of hire slowly and fire quickly is not only relevant for an early-stage company that needs to keep culture work as the way the founder envision, but it is also relevant for big companies too. I remember Netflix also has a policy that if someone is not performing they will fire them with good compensation. Even if you’re big you don’t want to have some toxic that slows your pace or broke your culture.
Employee improvement over firing quickly?
You might have in a condition where you have a team member that not performing and you are contemplating whether it is something that can be fixed or not. Should I fire or should I improve them? I think there are several key items here that we can consider.
- How big is the effort to make them a good performer? I found out sometime, it is easier to make an already good performer into a star performer (taking words from Peter Drucker’s Managing Oneself)
- Is it something that can be fixed? Is it because they lack hard-skills or they lack the attitude? Hard-skills can be learned, attitude is hard to teach especially for grown men.
Consider those two things has always save me from a longer term pain of maintaining non-performing team.