How Fast-Growing Startups Can Fix Internal Communication Before It Breaks

How Fast-Growing Startups Can Fix Internal Communication Before It Breaks

URX CEO John Milinovich knows communication is crucial and that maintaining it will be hard as they grow. Here's what he's doing about it.

URX has since been acquired by Pinterest. John Milinovich is now the founder and CEO of Plato. In early 2015, URX was a relatively unknown startup — a small team with a very technical product. That changed this spring when it announced a $12 million Series A and landed a series of glowing profiles from TechCrunch, The Wall Street Journal and others. Today, the company is quickly becoming synonymous with a new trend and term —deeplinking— the ability to link users to any page inside an app (vital as more people use their phones and tablets for everything they do).

Since then, the team has expanded to close to 20 employees, and is on the brink of a breakout growth. But what keeps CEO John Milinovich up at night? Making sure URX’s internal communications are designed to help it become a better company as it scales. The tech industry is littered with examples of communication breakdowns that stunted promising starts. Suddenly things got too big, people didn’t know what was going on, and products suffered. Milinovich is determined to dodge this bullet.

To fix things before they break, he’s been meeting with his backers and mentors — experienced entrepreneurs themselves — to figure out how to keep communication flowing. His contention: If people can focus on self-improvement, companies can too. And he’s deployed four strategies to make this happen at URX as it grows.

Contrarian Office Hours

From the beginning, John and his co-founders have prioritized hiring people who are uniquely open to giving and receiving feedback. It’s something they try hard to suss out in the interview process by building in opportunities to provide critique, dive into the product, be controversial. They want to see who will be critical of their work, and who will accept criticism constructively. But they needed a forum for the company as a whole to do the same. Everyone was working so fast without a break, there was no time to reflect on what was going right and wrong.

The result was dubbed Contrarian Office Hours. Every Friday afternoon, the entire team gathers together, and everyone is invited to share ideas, air grievances, ask questions, and say outright that they think things should be done differently. The word “contrarian” was chosen specifically to draw out arguments and hotbutton topics. In Milinovich’s words, “It creates a safe space where people are not just allowed to mix things up, but given express permission to call things out. It also primes people to not take things personally.”

Contrarian Office Hours have been used to tackle everything from whether URX should work with a specific customer to equity packages and benefits to vacation policies. Allowing people to step out into the open and talk about how they feel has both helped them bond and accept ownership over the company.

“The best organizations are the ones that not only solicit constructive feedback, but actually do something with it.”

“We tell our employees to check their egos at the door, so as a company we need to do the same thing,” Milinovich says. Part of the deal is that URX’s leadership will take whatever’s thrown at them and meaningfully respond (even if it requires extra research or a product change).

“We want people to know that when they go into that room for office hours, they can express how they feel, but no one is being attacked personally. It’s all about building the best company possible,” he says. “For example, we had one person say that they feel awkward taking vacation because the founding team never takes time off and we didn’t have a well-defined requirement. We followed up by asking who else felt the same way, and scheduled time with them to create a concrete policy. It let us have the people who were most passionate about the issue involved in coming up with a solution.”

The session is time-bounded to an hour, so that people with questions or opinions are encouraged to share upfront, and people with answers are incentivized to fix issues swiftly if they can or take more complicated matters offline.

The leadership team actually collects questions and topics in advance using Google Moderator so that they can prepare genuine, thorough answers, and also budget how the time will be used. “If we know we have 10 questions, we’ll pay attention to handling each in five or six minutes,” Milinovich says.

Every issue raised during Contrarian Office Hours is logged on URX’s internal wiki — a forcing function to find answers, take action, and keep people accountable for making changes. As things get done, their status is updated and eventually marked as complete. This is visible to everyone within the company. “No matter who you are, you can see who is assigned to a specific action item and whether they did what they were supposed to or not.”

Contrarian Office hours have also played a major role in initiating new hires into URX’s feedback-fueled style. Recent recruits are required to attend during their first week, and Milinovich says he knows its having the desired effect because, “People who just joined start participating right away. It’s incredible to see someone who has fresh eyes come in and feel comfortable asking why things are the way they are. When this started happening, we knew that this would become and stay a cornerstone of our culture.”

Also critical, Contrarian sessions end by celebrating victories large and small. Milinovich quickly realized how necessary this was to end the week on a positive, energizing note. No matter how negative the preceding hour can get, this gives people a chance to share personal wins, congratulate their colleagues, and recognize good work. Stacking criticism and priase so closely together has had a compound effect, he says: It has made transparency rewarding.

Tech Talks

One core tenet at URX is lifelong learning. The idea is to create a company that is greater than the sum of its parts by combining knowledge, and using it to motivate people to extend their individual capabilities.

“Our view of learning goes beyond how to do your job better, or learning from your mistakes,” says Milinovich. “It’s learning for knowledge's sake.”

Several times a week, usually over lunch, the entire team is invited to what they call Tech Talks. These are always taught by another member of the team, and can be about something related to a project they are working on, a demo, or simply a relevant topic they find interesting. In the last two weeks alone, talks have included an intro to Python, a demo using Google Glass, and discussion on finding early adopters based on Crossing the Chasm. Even though these talks are completely optional, Milinovich says the format has encouraged healthy attendance.

One of the more inspiring facets of this tactic is seeing the people you work with double as teachers. Many are willing to put the time into preparing materials to discuss, and are very patient when describing topics they know like the back of their hand to people who are less familiar. For people who work in a very specific functional area, the ability to present, teach and mentor gives them an extra set of tools they can apply in their careers, either at URX or down the line.

“We want to encourage deep understanding of what the team is working on — whether its a major technical challenge or consolidating feedback from the market,” Milinovich says. “Tech Talks bring the entire the team together, and show off how people have many different talents.”

These discussions also foster communication between the engineering and business sides of the company. There aren’t as many opportunities for these people to interact on work projects, so talks represent one of few times they’re all in the same room engaged in the same topic. Having a broad view of challenges across the company yields an interesting perspective on how the technology, the product, and the sales process come together to delight and serve customers. In many cases, questions get asked that surface new ideas for the company.

“We see the innate curiosity of our team as a competitive advantage, one that will help invent a new market.”

A Commitment to 1:1s

“My most important job is to be a feedback loop — a feedback loop between our product and the market, and feedback loop for the team,” Milinovich says. “This is how we’ll build the right culture to get us where we’re going as fast as possible.”

This manifests in the form of one-on-ones. He has one scheduled with every single person working at the company — everyone — and he’s committed to keeping it this way for the foreseeable future, even if and when URX surpasses 100 employees. It might take some creative calendaring, but it will remain a core value for him and the organization, he says.

In addition to meeting with Milinovich, every member of URX’s technical team also spends one-on-one time with CTO and Co-founder Andrew Look. Right now, this happens bi-weekly, with Milinovich meeting with every member of the business team on a weekly basis.

“There will always be things that people won’t bring up in a community forum that are still so important to address, especially before they become bigger issues,” he says. “It’s critical for both me and Andrew to make sure everyone knows that one-on-ones are a safe, confidential place for them to talk about things that are bothering them inside and outside the office. It’s their time and they can use it however they want to.”

John Milinovich, Co-Founder & CEO at URX
“The best question to start a one-on-one is often just, 'Where's your head at?'”

“You’d be surprised by the range and depth of responses you’ll get to that simple question,” Milinovich says. “Sometimes people want to dive very specifically into what they’ve been working on. Sometimes they’ve had all this angst bottled up about not doing as good of a job recently because of something going on in their lives or with their relationships or health, and we give them a chance to talk about that and be honest. A lot of times people just don’t know how to get over a certain hump or out of a rut. If that’s the case, we want them to tell us with zero reservation what’s going on so we can help.”

Most of the time, he says, people just want to know if they are doing the right things to become successful at the company — and who better to offer advice than the CEO or CTO who have a bird’s eye view of the whole operation, what is needed, and how people can help? “That’s why it’s so important to me to meet with everyone, so that they can check in and take the pulse of the whole company and see where they fit into where we’re headed.”

“No one wants to work somewhere where they have to keep their guard up. Our goal is to get them to drop it as early as possible.”

The best way to get people to open up is to model the behavior yourself, Milinovich says. He’s made a point of being extremely open and honest about his own life, problems he’s facing, and concerns he has about the business, no matter where someone ranks in the organization.

One of the first lessons I learned when URX was at about nine or ten people was that the entire organization tended to reflect my emotions,” he says. “If I was stressed out, people would come up to me and say how they were just as stressed. I get reminded often that how I’m feeling influences everyone else.”

This is a common phenomenon that a lot of leaders aren’t aware of —the smallest gestures, ticks or even tone of voice can cause anxiety, insecurity and turmoil within a company. One-on-ones give Milinovich a chance to speak candidly about this, and make sure his words and actions come across clearly. “This is especially important if I don’t have a lot of confidence in something we’re doing,” he says. “It gives me a chance to explain things in a more nuanced way, and to reiterate how excited I am to be here working with everyone on these problems.”

When people come to him with specific problems or concerns during one-on-ones, Milinovich says he takes a sickness vs. symptoms approach. “It’s easy to see the symptoms of things — that’s what is actually happening on the surface, but it takes more time to truly understand the underlying cause. Having time set aside with people gives me the opportunity to dig deeper and diagnose the root of a problem. Then we have a shot at fixing it.”

For instance, if someone says they're feeling particularly stressed or tense and they don’t know why, he goes granular. “I ask them things like what part of the day these feelings are the strongest. Then we can identify triggers, whether they are meetings, or people, or certain types of work.”

The other part of the equation is simply listening, he says. “Sometimes the most effective thing you can do is just give someone your full attention and make it clear to them that this is their time no matter what else I might have going on or how busy I might be.” As a byproduct, the time gives him unique insight into his employees and what makes them tick. As he’s observed, “Some people never prepare and just want to talk about stuff off the cuff, other people bring detailed bulleted lists of items to discuss. Knowing this about people gives me a sense of how they work most effectively, and even what kinds of projects they’d be best at.”

90% of the time, he says he tries to turn these meetings into walks (URX is located on South Park). “It makes everything less formal, it feels more like a peer relationship, and people are more likely to open up. Context switching makes it even clearer that this is a different type of interaction where they can take a break from heads-down work and be themselves.”

As a CEO, there are huge benefits to be reaped from getting people talking, and speaking with everyone. “I get the chance to aggregate all of this information from all of these meetings, and then patterns start to emerge,” Milinovich says. “I’ll start hearing the same thing from more than one person. For example, a while back, three separate people asked me about how we were going to message a product, and I realized that I was repeating myself. It occurred to me that this was something that needed to be broadly communicated to the entire company. Just because only three people asked doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who didn’t know the answer.”

Of course this sounds great, but what does Milinovich plan to do when URX enters hyper-growth and he can’t afford to spend double-digit hours a week in one-on-ones? His solution is two-fold, designed to maintain the feeling that everyone has immediate access to decision-makers at the top:

  • Training managers to be as dedicated to one-on-one time as he is. Especially as the company adds new tiers of management, it will be critical that new leaders make the time to meet with each member of their team, and that they share the same values of hearing people out on any topic they choose; diagnosing the roots of problems, not just treating the symptoms; and making it clear that people are free and safe to share what’s going on in their personal and professional lives. “Right now, Andrew is a great example of this, giving the entire engineering team a backstop they can rely on.”
  • I will definitely continue to meet with everybody.” Bold words, but he has a plan for staggering meetings as the company grows. Depending on how closely he works with people, or how relevant he is to their work, he’ll meet with people weekly, then bi-weekly, then monthly, then quarterly. It may take some master-level scheduling, but it’s a high enough priority to invest the time, he says. On top of that, he won’t require one-on-ones if there really is nothing to discuss, which will also save time. “People will have the most consistent relationship with their manager, but can always reserve the option to speak with me if they want, and I will make time,” he says.

Document All The Things

The pattern recognition Milinovich has taken away from one-on-one meetings led him to URX’s fourth strategy for constant self-improvement: Fastidious internal documentation. “You get to a point where there’s so much complexity, or you see the same question or issue so many times that you need to write it down so that new people can learn it without you telling them, and everyone gets on the same page.”

It started with a five-page essay written by Andrew on all of the product changes that have been made since the beginning of the company to date. Not only does it enumerate all of the shifts in the product, it also includes the reasoning and rationale behind them in case people wonder why choices were made.

Today, this and many more processes and founding documents live on URX’s wiki, where anyone can access them, comment, or edit. That said, to keep it useful, this central bank of knowledge can’t be a free-for-all.

“Everything we put on the wiki has to meet a certain bar,” Milinovich says. “It has to be something that when a new employee starts they’ll want to read it and will understand so much more about the company as a result.”

Making information easily discoverable is the other top priority. “As we add more and more data, people and complexity to the org, we need to make sure everything has been added and filed in a way that makes sense and that is easy to find,” he says. “There are things that everyone needs to know, and then things that really only people in certain groups need to know. We are creating our documentation so that people have access to the most relevant information to them at any time.”

For example, helpful snippets of code may be easier to surface for members of the engineering team, while customer lead lists are more visible for members of the business development team. The architecture will continue to evolve as the company gains momentum, but these principles will stay the same, Milinovich says.

URX uses GitHub to run its wiki, which allows the team to not only present current information, but also all the iterations that came before that, so that if someone really wants to dive deep into the evolution of the company and the product, they can trace their steps through time.

This project is a significant part of Milinovich’s job day to day —about 10 to 20% of his time is spent writing things down — that’s how important it is to the health of internal communications, he says. The same thing is true for all of the company’s co-founders who specialize in different areas.

“We’re building a business and a product that has never existed in the market before. There’s no precedent,” he says. “So much of our time is spent on how we articulate what it is, why it’s valuable, what it can do for people. Being able to write this down in a place where anyone can contribute ideas and we can see how things are changing over time will be critical.”

“Documenting your company is the same thing as building self-awareness.”

Milinovich spends a lot of time contemplating tactics for self-improvement and believes that the same can be done on a company level.

“I think it's possible to build a self-aware company. A lot of it has to do with building in all of these feedback loops, with checking in constantly and seeing where you are at, with building mechanisms to make all of this run smoothly without a ton of oversight,” he says. “When you do this, growth and constant improvement are possible at the same time.”

John Milinovich tweets at @jmilinovich. URX does the same at @urxtech.