There’s a time honored tradition in the startup world that once your company starts to build traction, investment, and the resemblance of a solid working machine is appearing the company is then in need of adult supervision. Basically, the majority of the startup founders are given a soft pat on the back, firm handshake, and are subsequently thrown to the sidelines of the company they helped build because it’s seen that they built a great startup but can’t build a mature business.
This can be seen throughout the history of the tech industry. Apple of the late 1980s and Twitter are two notable examples of this, but the startup landscape is littered with them. Merge is on the precipice of this happening right now and it all stems from a single problem.
CEO Ryan Faust and co-founder Jasper Collins have been in China for a week putting together the manufacturing processes in place in order to start running building enough devices for an actual mass sale. In the meantime, software co-founder Alison Redgrave has been the left in charge of the offices in Kitchener as she juggles a team that is often older than her and dealing with HR issues she hasn’t ever had to deal with. She’s been balancing the needs of product development and day-to-day operations single handedly and its been the essence of controlled anarchy during that time.
The call for adult supervision started when new Merge board member, Jonah Hester, decided to pop into the office while he was in town.
Jonah Hester isn’t an imposing man. He’s balding, roughly 5’ 9”, and walks with a smile on his face like he just high fived someone before coming into the room. He’s an inviting presence in a cafe for a nice conversation. That light-hearted demeanor ends when you enter a boardroom.
For all the veneer of calm and positivity, Jonah Hester has a reputation as a dominating force in upturning businesses he’s invested in. And, Merge is now part of that plan.
Jonah was the final investor to sign on in the last round of funding. His book of investments ranges from early stage franchises, health care, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, and, of course, high tech. He exited a tech company he helped found in the early 1990s that sold to one of the in the early days of educational software. He knows how a company should be built, because he’s done it before.
When Jonah walked into the office he paid me no attention as he walked by. His mission was to see how everything was going that day. What he found was a half filled office at 2:00 pm when most offices are packed. After walking around the office for a few minutes not talking to anyone he called out, “Alison!”
“Yep, over here,” Alison yelled from the corner of the room holding her hand in the air.
Jonah walked over after a moment of searching for where Alison’s voice came from. As he walked over he asked, “Where is everyone? Is everyone sick or something?”
“No,” Alison said flatly. “Some are at home sleeping. Others are out at lunch.”
“Why aren’t they in the office right now?” Jonah asked. His voices was starting to turn more frustrated.
“We have an open office and flexible work schedule, Jonah,” Alison replied, still working away at her computer. “It’s been that way since Ryan, Jasper, and I first set up an office. The work gets done, but without a space filling managers only dedicated to playing a hall monitor.”
“That’s not how a business is suppose to be run,” Jonah said, growing more frustrated. “The team needs to be in the same place, at the same time, working.”
“I disagree,” Alison said simply but firmly.
Both Alison and Jonah have valid points in their assessment of a productive work environment. Jonah’s version of everyone in the office chatting through problems in person and working away at a desk in a designated office is how he grew up in a professional tech environment. It still works to this day for many major tech firms, but Alison’s favoring of a flexible and remote work environment is where startups are headed. It keeps the talent happy, without the loss of workflow expectations as long as proper processes and cloud applications are built into the digital work environment. What businesses can do now with remote working couldn’t have been done 20 years ago when Mr. Hester was king of the office.
“Call everyone in now,” Jonah said as he walked to an open desk and threw his bag down on it.
“I’m sorry, Jonah, but I’m not going to do that,” Alison said as she stood up and took her single ear bud out.
“Get Ryan on the phone immediately,” Jonah barked. “I don’t care if he’s sleeping, drunk, or in the middle of the most important meeting of his life!”
“No. I’m not a receptionist, Jonah,” Alison said, sitting back down. “You’re a board member, I’m a board member and a co-founder. In fact, I’m the only person from the leadership team in the country right now. Please let me manage my team as I see fit. You’re more than welcome to sit and add your expertise to the team who are here though.”
That exchange was three days ago. Since then Jonah has been a fixture in the Merge office. Even over the weekend.
On Monday morning I finally sat down and asked him what he wanted to accomplish by staying in the office.
He asked me to look around the office. It was about 11:00 am and people were at their desks. I saw what he meant. There were more people at their desks than there were when he came in three days prior.
“The word has reached the other staff that I’m in the office,” Jonah continued. “I’m a board member and someone they see as influential in the tech industry. They’re here because of me and the more they’re here the more productive I see them being.”
The adults have arrived in the Merge office. And, they don’t seem to want to leave anytime soon.
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