There are two options if you want to be a tech startup owner — one is to attach yourself to someone else’s startup in the early stages so you have equity options. The second option is to do it yourself. Doing it yourself often comes with a painful side effect, says Joshua Enders, managing partner of client success at digital commerce company Six Vertical.
“It’s an absolute grind. It’s like getting punched in the stomach multiple times a day,” Enders says. “I’m speaking from experience.”
In 2015, Enders founded Dorrbell, a hyperlocal startup that delivered clothing to customers for them to try on — a shopping option that eliminated the trip to the store. The company was successful, in part due to the small but tight-knit team of mostly engineers, but not successful enough to outlast its burn rate. Enders knew he had to do something different, so the company pivoted to become the current service-oriented Six Vertical.
It wasn’t easy, Enders makes unquestionably clear. The experience of watching a huge personal initiative fail, despite all his best efforts, was agonizing.
“You invest so much of your time and your money and your family’s money and your employees’ time,” he says. “You ask them to make all these sacrifices and help you work toward this common goal, and you’re selling them this vision, this hope, and then there comes a day when you realize, it ain’t gonna happen. The dream you were selling ended up being snake oil. You look back and feel like a fraud.”
A startup business can easily become part of one’s identity, Enders says. But the experience brought him the realization that he was the quintessential over-exuberant company founder – so excited and invested in his idea that he couldn’t see his own naiveté.
“On-demand companies, those business models are uber-capital intensive,” he says. “Now, Dorrbell still exists as a corporate entity, but it will be rebranded as Six Vertical Labs, and produce research and development out of it.”
Six Vertical Labs will be introduced into the market next year, he says, and the current company, Six Vertical, is still developing digital products, but in a much more controlled manner (with no burn rate at all, for the moment).
Enders says that for tech companies, it can be very tough to compete with others for talented engineers, but that the company culture is one recruitment tool to use.
Six Vertical’s culture, shaped almost entirely by Enders and implemented via nine core values, overwhelmingly focuses on being challenging and rewarding. “Go faster”, “level up your game”, and “run toward the fire” are three pillars of the culture, and Enders stresses that everyone needs to be pushed out of their comfort zones.
“I truly believe that Six Vertical is an opportunity for people to do something really special both individually and as a team,” he says. “But you have to run toward the challenges. You have to run toward discomfort, you have to run toward innovations that the client may not be seeing yet.”
Employees – especially talented engineers – are more valuable overall when they are being challenged, he says.
“They don’t want to keep doing the same thing,” he says. “That’s when people get bored and you start having to manage attrition. We don’t pander to those employees who are moving at a slower pace. We ask those who are going fast to go faster. That has the natural effect of bringing others up to their level.”
“Explore deeply”, “play to win”, and “work in the open” are three more core values that push any employees who are still in their comfort zones further toward the edge.
“When you get a good engineer, you want to hold on to them,” Enders says. “And this is a stereotype but it’s true a lot of the time, they have a tendency to work in a siloed manner. They put their hoodie over their head and dive into the code. But for them to be their best, they need to understand the business content of what they’re being chartered to solve.”
The culture is intense, challenging, and fun, he says. But “fun” doesn’t really capture the essence of the magic Enders hopes that Six Vertical will bring to its employees.
“For example, last week, I had this big pitch meeting to go to; there was a huge offer on the table and it would be transformational for us, our biggest deal of the year so far,” he said. “I included one of our engineers in the meeting because of some technical components I wanted him to speak to. So we’re in the meeting and the discussion took a turn, and we started talking about price negotiations.”
Normally, Enders says he would never include employees in a pricing negotiation, but at this point it was too late.
“He was there, so we went with it,” Enders says. “He’d never seen something like this, and after we came to an agreement and the client left the room, [the engineer] turned to me and said, ‘That was the most exciting meeting I’ve ever been in in my life.’”
That’s the bar Enders has set with Six Vertical’s company culture.
“I want a company culture that takes you to new places,” he says. “That’s my job, to vision cast and provide others with a rudder on the direction where we want to go. Where you’re in the most exciting meeting ever.”
Not everyone is cut out for this pace, and during the next three years, Enders sees Six Vertical growing to a $5 million company – just with its partnership with software provider APTTUS. To get the culture there, he has three more core values that are meant to provide a little more focus and clarity: “Go to the source”, “find the signal”, and “engineer you”. “Go to the source” means employees shouldn’t wait for others to provide information. “Find the signal” is an inspiration to filter out all the noise and decipher what bits of information are valuable and contain potential solutions.
“Engineer you” is actually the first, not the last, core value that Six Vertical employees are led by, and Enders introduces each employee to it in their first interview, before they’re hired. It’s the core value designed to make sure that Six Vertical employees are a good fit.
“In order for them to be successful and meet the demands of the clients we work with, they’re going to have to engineer their life and schedule to meet those demands,” Enders says.
There’s one more thing that Enders is adamant about with regard to the culture – the MVP. That’s Mutual Value Plan, or a blueprint that is also laid out with each employee individually, starting during the interview process. It was inspired by the book “The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age” by Ben Casnocha, Chris Yeh, and Reid Hoffman, Enders says.
“We just simply ask the individual, ‘What do you want?’” he says. “There’s no limit to how they can answer that. Just, ‘What does the future of you look like?’ I take [their answer], their managers take it, and we start to construct a 12 month plan to help get you there. What training will we sponsor? What account should we put you on? What industry event should you attend? Then we know what they’re going to give the company, and they know what the company will give back to them.”
April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.