Startup Culture Diaries: How to be present as a founder when absent

foko culture

In 2006, I started a tech company called Tungle. One series A, 500,000 users and five years later, it was acquired by Blackberry. Every acquisition has its reason—many will state reasons like strategic synergies or high return on investment—but in reality, the majority of the time, a company agrees to an acquisition because the founders want out.

I do not own culture. Culture is influenced by everyone in the company. Everyone contributes to it, everyone tweaks it.
 

Tungle was no exception to this rule. Truth be told, I wanted to sell Tungle because my wife got pregnant with our first child. Running a startup requires hard work, long hours, and extensive travel. I travelled half of the time, and when I wasn’t travelling, I would be in the office around 7 a.m. and leave around 6 p.m., then home to reconnect for an hour or so in the evening. Being an absentee father was not an option for me. I could not fathom the idea of being away when my son would walk his first few steps or say his first few words.

Fast forward to today, I am running another startup with two young kids at home. But this time, I am making the conscious decision to make my family my first priority. I minimize my travel. I leave the office at 3:30pm every day to pick up my son from school, and then spend time with my family until the kids’ bedtime.

Although I find myself being more focused and productive when in the office, I do not experience the same amount of facetime with the team. I can rarely attend team social outings like beer o’clock of Friday, or play on our Foko dodgeball team. At Tungle, I found that facetime was crucial to setting the foundation for our culture. I could catch times when I saw something that didn’t sit quite right with my values, or informally tell stories that conveyed behaviors I wanted to see from my team. Over a beer, I’d often find myself telling stories about how someone on the team impressed a customer, or rescued a presentation gone bad.

This prolonged facetime is something I just can’t afford now. Here are some of the things that I started to do to compensate:

  • We put together an employee handbook that emphasizes our values, rather than describing policies and regulations.
  • We replaced our Monday morning management meeting with a Monday morning leadership meeting, which everyone in the company is welcome to attend. The agenda is posted the day before and everyone can add to it. During the meeting we discuss all topics openly, forcing everyone to be honest about what is working and what is not.
  • We just purchased a bell that someone gets to ring when an important milestone or target has been reached.
  • I began randomly picking one team member every week to have lunch with. They pick the place. It’s really informal and allows me to get a better feel for their day to day challenges and accomplishments.

All of these activities have taught me that I do not own culture. Culture is influenced by everyone in the company. Everyone contributes to it, everyone tweaks it. For example, Fang, our CTO, is a health nut. He loves exercising, so he encouraged everyone to take a few minutes every day at 3 p.m. to plank: a daily ritual we now call Plank Time. We have a bot that reminds everyone at 3 p.m.—and now, even when Fang is not here to remind everyone, we find ourselves hitting the floor and planking. It is part of who we are.

Our culture should evolve as the team evolves. This is probably my biggest lesson when it comes to culture. I am one of many contributors to it. I need to be able to contribute to it, but more importantly, I need to learn from it—not dictate it.

Marc Gingras

Marc Gingras

"Marc is a Canadian entrepreneur and angel investor. He is the CEO of Foko, a visual communication platform for retail teams. He sold his previous venture, Tungle.me, to BlackBerry in 2011. He is the Chairman of Sopar, a non-profit focused on sustainable development and helping the poor in rural India. Marc holds an MBA from INSEAD, a MASc in Management Sciences from the University of Waterloo and a BASc in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Ottawa