John Schnipkoweit’s past career was with larger companies in the Fortune 500 realm, and years ago, he founded a business.
“My first business, we did it wrong,” he says. “We totally screwed up.”
Now, Schnipkoweit is the CTO at five-year-old digital marketing automation company Choozle in Denver. CEO Andrew Fisher told Street Fight in an interview that much of the culture emphasizes growth, and that Schnipkoweit has brought another level of professional insights to the company. Schnipkoweit was hired this year, but he recognized Choozle’s culture as one that he belonged in.
From a business perspective, Schnipkoweit’s prior company was successful. But from another perspective, it had fallen flat on its face.
“We got to 50 people and we were growing, we were hiring people all the time,” he says. “We were feeling really good; growth is one of those things that hides all these problems. And then I walked in one day and it was like, ‘Who are you?’ There were people working there who you didn’t even know. And I noticed that things were starting to change.”
There was a mismatch in attitude and values that dragged an entire department down, he says.
“One person literally shook a group of 12 people apart,” Schnipkoweit says. “Basically, the problem was a trust issue. They created this ‘us versus them’ attitude, where ‘them’ was the company and ‘us’ was the group. There was a customer that they just kind of refused to help, a very large customer, and what happened was we lost the customer.”
When a startup is growing fast in the early stages, sometimes those big consequences are the only things that are noticed – and maybe that was another problem, Schnipkoweit says.
After experiencing the business faceplant, Schnipkoweit says he changed. He saw the tiered hierarchy differently. He saw trust in the workplace different. He started attending culture events to learn about how to design and assemble the people of an organization, and learned about teal organizations, where a focus is placed on values and culture.
“Teal is kind of tied to self-actualization; how to empower people to have a fluid, natural hierarchy versus an imposing hierarchy,” he says. “So one example is, you have a personal life and you don’t hire a manager to help you buy a car. Outside work we’re adults. Inside work, we have babysitters.”
The basis of a teal organization is allowing people to be their own managers, he says, and help them organize around the work that needs to be done, not around their titles.
“We can be adults and be self-aware about our work, about our egos, and have the psychological safety to get things done,” he says. “People have this ability to say, ‘I hired you to do this job; here’s your realm. You’re accountable for this and you don’t have to check with a manager to make those decisions.’”
Getting rid of job titles and helping people detach from job titles are two of the biggest challenges around refocusing a company on its culture and its values, Schnipkoweit says. At Choozle, the culture is focused around the product it is creating, and allowing that product to drive the company.
Schnipkoweit and Choozle CEO Fischer met a few years ago, at Denver Startup Week, Fischer says, and something just clicked. Two months into the job, Schnipkoweit made a big request.
“I wanted to shut the whole company down for two days and do this hack day,” he says. “Everybody. Not just the developers.”
Schnipkoweit got the OK for this, which he was surprised but thrilled about. He had participated in hackathons previously, where the goal is to surface ideas from everyone about what’s working, what’s not working, and what might work better. In this case, Schnipkoweit wanted to put Choozle through what would normally be a five-day design sprint in two days, including five idea pitches and five prototypes.
“I figured a couple of the teams might implode,” he says. “But all five teams delivered. I was just blown away. It was kind of a test, in some ways. How adaptable to change is Choozle?”
The company took a hard right turn, Schnipkoweit says. In mid-October, the company was four weeks through a completely new system – updated from a basic two-week agile scrum to a new six-week cycle.
“It’s opened up a dialogue that I don’t think we had before,” he says.
As of late 2017, Choozle has almost zero employee turnover, Fischer says. The company ranked first in the 2017 Denver Business Journal’s Best Places to Work awards among medium-sized companies. And an employee wrote on a Glassdoor review that the cons of working there is that “everyone is way better at ping pong than I am.”
“It starts out with making Choozle an amazing place to work,” Fischer says. “By doing that and by investing in our team, day in and day out, we align every person and their professional interests with the company.”
April Nowicki is a staff writer at Street Fight.