Des Traynor’s (Intercom) vision on building a company that lasts in a fast-growth environment

One of the talks that sparked our interested at the 2018 The Next Web conference in Amsterdam was that of Des Traynor. Traynor is co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at Intercom. Traynor launched Intercom in 2011 as the first to bring messaging for sales, marketing, and customer service to one platform — helping companies of all sizes build personal relationships with customers.

Traynor typically speaks and blogs about product (how to keep your product relevant, product strategy for the long run, product management at fast growing company, etc.), various AI topics, customer engagement and the challenges of growing a product-first company. Before Intercom, he was co-founder of Exceptional (now a part of Rackspace), the first error tracking company. Before Exceptional, he was a UX designer for web apps. He’s based in Dublin.

At The Next Web, Traynor spoke about building a product when scaling a company, and building a company that lasts and thrives in a fast-growth environment. We sat down with him to dive a little deeper into these topics.

Traynor’s talk at The Next Web Conference 2018

How do you create missions and values?
“Our mission, from the very start, is to make Internet business personal. These are our values at a company level: we try to serve people and do so in the way we believe good work happens. Additionally, we had an idea about what values the sort of people that will work at Intercom had, and how we should treat each other. A big change that we later on made was that a lot of teams had created their own sort of ideas and values. Then, we decided to write all these ideas and values down on a whiteboard: every single thing. And then we looked at the most common, universal elements, that we could support company wide. They have become our master values. And today, there’s literally a book, which is created as a children’s storybook, that we printed which contains a walk-through with every single value of Intercom, so these master values of the company.

Des Traynor

Still, we encourage the teams to have their own specific values, as long as it’s unique to the way the team has to work. And as long as those values don’t contradict the overall values. But there are values that can be specific to a team, like Customer Support needs a value like empathy, while that doesn’t make sense in the Finance team.”

How did you implement these values & missions? 
“The values are thus printed in the storybook, the children’s book. That makes it an interesting thing to look at. Imagine if we had printed them in Times New Roman on a white page, and just hope everyone reads it. We wanted to make it an interesting artifact to look at.

Every new hire gets the storybook, and a moment with me, or the co-founder, or head of product, or somebody that will walk them through our company values and what they mean. Periodically, we’ll refresh the values, or talk through them again. They need to be a living document, not a poster on a wall.”

“Part of our hiring process is making sure that a person shares our values.”

What if the values aren’t followed?
“If somebody does something countercultural we usually try to work out what triggered that behavior. In our hiring process, we focus on people that are confident but humble. So, you can be confident in that you know what you can do, and you can be humble in that you believe you still have a lot to learn. But if you’re cocky or you think you’re the best… Part of our hiring process is making sure that a person shares our values.

When somebody is countercultural when working with us, like being rude to a customer or being mean to a colleague, we then try to look at the circumstances that surrounded this event. Most people act really consistently in their jobs, unless they’re put in a bad position. So maybe they’re overworked, or had a really bad interaction with a customer. We try to work that out and try to figure out if it is an Intercom problem, or just a frustrating situation. Often you can fix that by making sure those situations don’t happen. People can snap — we’re all humans. But we’ll try and fix it, in every way we can.”

Do you have KPIs in place to measure culture?
“No. It’s based on observations. I also don’t know what that would look like. As a general rule of thumb, I’m a little averse to qualitative data turning into quantitative data. There might be too much nuance lost in the transfer process. Culture is very qualitative. For example, how do you measure if someone is humble? If you would be able to quantify that, then maybe people will trick the system, and you’re left struggling with this.”

“…don’t micromanage by setting specific tasks”

How do create alignment if you have multiple teams? How does that work on company level or team level?
“Our alignment process follows a V-shape: we align at the top and go down, align at the bottom and then it comes back up again. That means, that the first piece of alignment is at the very top: what do you want the teams to do. And that’s usually the first point of fundamental alignment. You then need to trickle that alignment down to make sure that each team knows what they’re doing.

You should give the teams big picture directions: don’t micromanage by setting specific tasks. You set the direction and then let the team figure out on how and why they can get there. At the bottom level, they will decide what they’re doing. And what they do [what they execute], that comes back to the top. So you can add it all back up. And that’s a second opportunity to see what everybody is doing and see if it makes sense.”

How do you make that process transparent or communicate about it?
“On our intranet, every team has a page where they document what they do. For the most part, the top-level teams might not change what they do for two years. There are about seven top-level teams. So it’s not too hard to let people know what each team is doing.

So in terms of communication, this also helps in onboarding a new employee: via these pages you can also you know what everybody is doing. And, another rule that we have at Intercom is that we give people the benefit of the doubt. So if you hear something that doesn’t make sense, don’t react emotionally, but always assume it comes from positive intent. Whatever happened is probably the result of something. If someone is pissed off for not building the right thing, we look into why it happened that way (where the mismatch happened). So, we document internally, can show it in onboarding, and if alignment then is still off we use some force to mediate and get aligned again.”

Intercom

How do the different departments align with each other then?
“Every Friday we have a ‘Show and tell’, at which we show what we’ve build in that week at the company. It’s company-wide, so we present from four our locations simultaneously, so London, Chicago, San Francisco, Dublin together. In Dublin they’ll have a beer cause it’s 5pm and in San Francisco they’ll bring a nice breakfast because it’s 9am. We celebrate the week that has passed, and the achievements of that week. That’s one way we create alignment on the new stuff that we’ve done.”

Is that also the opportunity for the different departments to see how they’re aligned?
“Yes. We work in 6-week cycles, and additionally we also plan years and quarters. The six weeks however, is very specific, for features for example. Quarterly is more about problem-areas to spend time on. And then yearly goals are about more major things we want to take on.”

That doesn’t mean that we refocus every six weeks, but every six weeks we have an opportunity to change. A lot of the times, the next six weeks will be just an iteration of the previous 6 weeks.”

“Smart people will disagree.”

Do you track team’s successes?
“Every team has goals that we measure, that’s either the six weeks goals or the quarterly goals. The largest teams would be 8 or 9, and we monitor their goals and objectives. In general, we like to see around a 75–80% achievement rate of the goals. Usually the goals can be quantifiable. But that’s not always the case; the first stage of some things doesn’t have numbers to support the results. Not everything is measured. But yes, we will notice if a team doesn’t hit its goals or always hits its goals.”

What is your biggest lesson learned or struggle overcome to get to this stage? 
“The first time you have two smart people from different parts of the company, who you know are both loyal to the company and want the right thing… The very first time you see them disagree: that’s a wonderful moment. Smart people will disagree. But it’s a first sign that you need to take alignment very seriously. It’s a mistake to do alignment really early. But that very first time you see two very well intentioned, good people disagree with each other on what they’re doing, or not understand what they’re doing — that’s the canary in the cage test.

That means that teams are drifting away from each other and you need to fix it. Don’t ignore it and don’t make an immediate call: don’t say John is right and Jenny is wrong and walk away. You need to fix the problem holistically, not just treat the symptoms. In such a situations, there’s always an underlying fault, and that is where you need to start your fixing.”