GA SWARM Lacrosse Scores BIG with their Sales Culture!with Rob Strikwerda
Morgan Lopes, joins us for an in-depth look at how relationships, communication, an emphasis on problem solving, and investing in employees drive success at Polar Notion. Morgan advocates for incorporating the human elements of relationships and adaptability back into the culture of organizations. “The greatest value that humans have to contribute is in collaboration and adaptability.”
CEO and Co-founder
Thought-filled software engineer and entrepreneur who understands that deliberate, consistent progress over time is life’s greatest growth strategy. Regardless of his job titles, Morgan sees leadership as a choice, not a rank. He strives to make that choice daily and challenges others to do the same.
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We live at the intersection of software solutions and brand experience. We believe there is synergy in working on these together, but we also offer deep dives into one or the other.
If you dig our style, you’ll love working with us. Hopefully, our values say it best:
We believe in solutions.
Above all else, our goal is to help you solve problems. As a team of designers and engineers, we love asking big questions and bringing answers to life.
We pursue excellence, not perfection.
Whether the work we do or the way we do it, quality is at the forefront of our minds. Mistakes happen, but our pursuit of excellence means we learn fast and are constantly improving.
We are effectively human.
There’s a tension in programming cold, rigid machines for living, breathing people. Efficiency and productivity are important but aren’t the goal. We engineer solutions that amplify human experiences.
We go boldly forward.
Courageous, forward movement is key to innovating and doing work that matters. We push ourselves to improve and invite others along for the journey.
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Series Quick Links
Sales Culture Series
Announcer: Welcome to the Epic Company Culture podcast, where your host, Josh Sweeney, will give you, the business leaders, HR professionals and company culture aficionados, the knowledge you need to take your company culture to the next level.
Josh: Hello, and welcome to the Epic Company Culture podcast. Before I get started, I’d like to think Prototype Prime for this amazing podcast space. Today I am joined by Morgan Lopes of Polar Notion going to tell us all about his company culture. Morgan, thanks for joining us.
Series: Culture Experts
Introducing Morgan Lopes!
Morgan Lopes: Hey, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Josh Sweeney: So, tell us about yourself and Polar Notion.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah. Cool. So, a little bit about myself, entrepreneur I started our business from about 2012, and I have two girls, a wife at home who encouraged me and supported me along the way. I think in the early days we wouldn’t be here without them, which has been huge. And then actually in recent years continued to grow our business. And then in about 2016, I also took on a kind of side passion projects working for a new story, and we build houses in the developing world. So, pioneering solutions to end homelessness, which has created a really unique experience to see two companies about the same size at a similar age or a similar life cycle developing side by side, both very culture first has been really cool. So, today I manage my time and then do both.
Josh Sweeney: So, does that passion project something that you came up with or you’re part of?
Morgan Lopes: So, a part of, I got an invitation from the founders pretty early on. It was about three years ago, and have since been apart now the team this year by about Q2 we’ll be at 25 people.
Josh Sweeney: Okay. And have you been able to travel to go build some houses, or what’s your role?
Morgan Lopes: So yeah, we’re all about using local labor and local materials. And so we don’t… When we travel it’s usually to inspect the properties that we’ve built, or to test the technology that we’re building on the ground. But we do a quarterly summits, and leadership planning and those kinds of things. And we’ll do that usually in California where half the team is, the other half is in Atlanta. And we’ll often go to El Salvador, Mexico, Haiti, and Bolivia are the countries that we work. So, we get to see a little bit of those, and experience that, and usually like to get the team to travel to see the impact that we’re having.
Non Profit and Product Oriented Company
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. Very cool. So, has that experience rolled over into things that you do in Polar Notion? Have other team members gotten involved?
Morgan Lopes: A little bit, I think many of the Polar Notion team members are fans of the work at News Story. It’s pretty hard not to get behind people building houses for those in need. So, there’s been a lot of alignment there. I think the probably greatest value that both teams have seen is a really watching these two organizations grow side by side. So, a lot of the growing pains that I would have thought if I was just looking at our business as it grew around 12 to 15 people, and that thought like, “uh, is everyone having these problems?” And I will literally walk out of one leadership team meeting into another and realize, oh yeah, like these are the exact same problems. And so it’s been really cool to see those businesses develop side by side. A lot of pattern matching of just what businesses go through. And there are similar things around just a growing business that looks pretty similar depending… regardless of if it’s a nonprofit for profit, more of a product oriented company. Or for us on the Polar Notion side we built a web and mobile apps, so we’re on the service side of things and yeah, it’s pretty cool.
Similarities in Businesses
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, it’s interesting you bring up kind of the similarities of the size of the business because you and I met through EO, the entrepreneur organization.
Morgan Lopes: Right.
Josh Sweeney: And when I was integration and membership chair on the board for Atlanta, I got that, I got similar questions and a lot, where it’s like, “Oh, well do you have other people in this type of business or this type of industry?” And a lot of times people were looking for exactly those. It’s like I’m in the car industry, I need somebody else in the car industry to share my problem. And what I always told them was you can definitely get value from that, but that’s not really how it works. And a lot of the… You’re going to get actually more value by talking to people in other industries in other spaces. A lot of the challenges are the same, the way we solve them is different, and sometimes different, sometimes the same. But like it all crosses so much. I feel like 90% of it’s the same problem just in another business with another team, another way.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah. No. Exactly right. And I think once you go from either doing freelance or kind of solo-preneur stuff into actually building out a team, you start to realize that regardless of the business, right, your P&L may look a little bit different, your margins might look a little bit different. But you start to kind of have these system and process breakdowns. Or you start to realize that the type of people who will join a two person team are very different people than join at 25 people team. And so, yeah, it doesn’t really matter what industry you’re in. The core fundamentals of business actually tend to preserve throughout as long as you’re the type of business that’s growing, and that’s building a team around it. Yeah, there’s a lot of similarities and things that are just familiar from business to business.
Write it with a Pencil
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. And you were mentioning the breakdowns thing. I read an article the other day that talked about the percentage of change, the percentage of growth that happens. And it wasn’t… I think it was like 30%. It wasn’t a high percentage, but for every percentage that the business grows, 100% of your processes break. You know, so it was basically going through the analysis that they did that said you think it’s the processes that you wrote today are going to help you scale for tomorrow, but the scale that you’re at now just trash all-
Morgan Lopes: Yeah, you better write it with a pencil. Write it with a pencil, because you’re going to need to erase that for sure.
Josh Sweeney: Exactly.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah, that’s huge.
Josh Sweeney: Get the big eraser.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah. And actually, that’s been something that we’ve found pretty compelling when growing a team, is finding people who are adaptable. If the team is growing pretty quickly, they need to be able to flex with the business. I think something very early on there are team members who if you just like three people in a room jamming on a project, well that’s great. But when you double that or triple that, all of a sudden fundamentally is different, right?
Josh Sweeney: Yeah.
Morgan Lopes: We’re not going to fit in this room. And so, if you have somebody who’s looking for those things, and that’s what makes them happy and being a very super close, super intimate. And at one point in time we had a team member, our first hire, he probably got 60 to 70% of my time and attention throughout the day. While the business is growing and no one gets that amount of time, not even my wife. And so yeah, they need to be ready to ebb and flow with that. And I think the more team members can be adaptable and just yeah, work through those changes, typically the more successful they can be with the business.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, definitely. I mean there’s lots of information out there about the sales manager that you had at 20 people, is it the sales manager you might need at a 100? Even the founder sometimes at 100 people is not the one you need for 200. There are all kinds of dynamics that happen that make it where you have to change up the people, unfortunately, or they have to be dynamic enough to grow with the business.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah, that’s exactly right.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. So, what experiences did you have before Polar Notion that really drove some of the decisions that you’ve made about company culture in Polar Notion?
Morgan Lopes: So, I worked a lot of jobs through college. I kind of worked my way through everything from personal training, Home Depot, worked at Medieval Times for a little bit. So, I got to see a lot of how people do it. And I will say something that I really liked kind of in that experience was seeing a lot of the large, more established businesses just had answers to questions, right? That may be one in 100 people ask, right? But if the organization has a couple of hundred people then that question’s being asked pretty often. So, there’s a system and a process that I really liked about some of those bigger organizations.
Morgan Lopes: I think something that I wasn’t as crazy about was the opportunities for growth just seemed like, in order for me to win, somebody else had to lose. And there was something about that zero-sum game that I was very distasteful, and something that as we’ve tried to build a thriving organization, we tried to figure out how do you create an atmosphere in which somebody is not trying to like trample somebody else just to get ahead. Yeah, so the system and processes were great, but ultimately the unclear path to growth and moving up not being at the expense of somebody else was kind of hard to stomach and watch.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, I definitely understand the growth path and how basically there’s a limited number of spots in any manner… There’s a limited number of managers, right? And if everybody thinks the management track is the growth path, then yeah somebody has to lose if you’re going to get that spot. And I know that another challenge is, we do a lot with work motivators, and one of the motivators is leadership positions. And so we go in and we talk about how there are lots of ways to create leadership positions without a manager title. It’s not that zero-sum game, there are ways you can lead from the front lead from behind. There are subject matter experts. There are people that lead projects and there are all kinds of ways to create leaders without having to worry about that title, or overstepping, or stepping over somebody else to get to that position.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah. So I spoke with a coach recently and one of the things that he was talking about, or I guess the way he framed it was asking, “Have you ever demoted somebody?” And we were with the leadership team at the time, and we were thinking this through, and like, fortunately, we haven’t had to do that yet. He was like, “Well, have you ever gone away on vacation and handed some tasks to somebody? And then when you came back, you assumed those responsibilities again?” Yeah, of course. That’s what you do, right? Like you gotta get the work done. He’s like, “Cool, that’s a demotion. You demoted that person. You gave them authority and then you took it back.” And he reframed this idea of promoting and demoting somebody, realizing that it could happen moment by moment, or in certain contexts.
Morgan Lopes: And I think there are times where we don’t view it that way, right, because a title didn’t change or something. But the reality is there are opportunities throughout the life cycle of a business to invite people up. And we want to be very mindful of extending those whenever possible, or whenever we see that opportunity. But we also want to be mindful of the opposite. If we take something from someone. And one thing that I’ve witnessed twice, it happened, when you go from kind of this ad hoc, the team is forming, figuring some stuff out, to actually establishing a leadership team or an executive team. Well, if you have team members who were in the room, right, as you were figuring it out, but didn’t make the cut or the jump to an executive team or leadership team position, that’s a demotion.
Morgan Lopes: It doesn’t feel like that, and we wouldn’t call it that because they never had the title in the first place. But the reality is there was a social norm that got disrupted and they didn’t win. Which oftentimes winning and losing is not based in reality, it’s based on my perspective or comparing me to you. And so, framing it that way and then giving us that internal language to use of, “Hey, are we… let’s promote somebody into this opportunity.” Hey, that’s a demotion, right? And just kind of be able to label it when we see it helps us maybe make more informed decisions, or just realize like, hey, look, we’re going to step on some toes in business. Sometimes you realize it, sometimes you don’t, but oftentimes we make these mistakes that we didn’t mean to. It wasn’t… No mal intention, but as how do team members perceive them, is usually a fair question to ask. That yeah, it comes back to this hierarchy roles, promotions, demotions.
Hierarchy: What now?
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. It reminds me of a similar situation I had. I had a salesperson in our last company, a great salesperson. I was looking at bringing on a sales manager because I wanted to add more salespeople and I knew that I didn’t have the bandwidth. And all of a sudden we’re having this really difficult conversation where he’s like, “Well, who do I report to?” And I’m like, “Well, he’s going to be the new sales manager.” “Well, why is it that me?” “Well, you’re really good at selling and we need you to keep selling right now. It’s a different skill set, experience.” He’s like, “Well, he can come on but I want to report to you.” Like, okay-
Morgan Lopes: Of course you do, yeah.
The People Manage Path and the Individual Contributor Path
Josh Sweeney: This is going to be a challenge. And like you said, it was somebody that I had been working closely with, had a good rapport with, great team member. And it was almost a demotion in that way. That’s what it really felt like, and definitely didn’t think that far into it at the time. This is my first multimillion-dollar company and never saw that one coming. I was like it just made sense to me, you know?
Morgan Lopes: No, that’s right. Well, and I think too, one thing, there’s a great book that I would often recommend to more like tech founders. It’s called Lost and Founder, a great guy. A very vulnerable story about growing a business and fumbling through it. And one of the things that he talks about quite a bit is if he had to do all over again, he would have sooner created two paths. The people manage path and the individual contributor path. And one is not better or worse than the other, because the reality is if you’re amazing at what you do in most organizations, you will be promoted to a point of incompetence at some point.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah.
Morgan Lopes: Because if you’re an awesome salesperson, and then all of a sudden now I’m having you lead salespeople, that’s not the same job.
Josh Sweeney: Right.
Morgan Lopes: It’s so different. But if we’ve structured an organization in such a way that all the people managers are the more revered position, it’s higher-paying, more opportunity. We’re sending a message to our team that a point that he makes is actually creating two paths. Let’s say, “Hey, you’re just going to be an amazing salesperson, we want to empower you to do that. And we will make it financially beneficial for you, and for you to be able to provide for your family and grow over time. And you have a place here to just be an amazing salesperson. And hey, yeah, if you want more authority and more responsibility and lead people, you can do that. But realize it’s different, right? It’s not better or worse. It’s just is what is the best fit for you and the organization?”
Morgan Lopes: And I think that’s something that it’s really easy to mess that up because we don’t see that modeled a lot. Right? Usually, it’s the people leaders, the ones who have lots of people under them are more valuable to the organization. But sometimes you just need somebody who can get that job done really well over and over again. And so, figuring out how do you set the organization up in a way that that can be true.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. I think that comes up in all kinds of different ways. So, I have two boys. I know you said you had two girls, and a for a few years I was the head coach for football for my youngest and my oldest football team. And that was one thing as I was reading through these books and learning from other coaches, like what to do, what not to do. One of them was with Lineman. A lot of times at six, seven, eight years old on a football team, and in other sports too, there are positions that are for the least experienced players. Unfortunately, yeah, the left-field or a lineman in football. They’re like, “Here, you don’t know the plays. You just put you up on the line, right?”
And one of the experiences that I heard from another coach was, these guys are blocking if they don’t block, nothing else happens. Which I know that intuitively, but you have to make them feel like they’re the quarterback, they’re the running back. Like you have to really give them that growth path through the position that they’re in, and give them that feeling. So, I mean I think it comes up in lots of different ways. I had the same thing with a client a few weeks ago actually. We were doing like a 200 person analysis, a sales team analysis of like what were the personalities that excelled most in this role, and which ones struggled the most? And they had a combination of an inside and an outside rep. They were together.
Growth Path: Promotion
Josh Sweeney: We know that those are two totally different personalities. An outbound outside rep has one, and the inside person is a lot more supportive in a lot of ways when they’re paired up. While their path to growth was the inside salesperson did really good, so you got promoted to outside sales.
Morgan Lopes: Nice. So, you’re a good farmer and congratulations, you are now a hunter.
Testing and Tweaking
Josh Sweeney: Right. And I’m like, “This doesn’t work.” Like that pair has to be complementary, and they, the inside people need a path to growth where they can make money by being a really good inside person supporting that outside person. So, similar in a lot of ways to what you’re going… or what you mentioned.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah. And I think oftentimes we frame a lot of these decisions and one thing that we’ve tried to do more and more is view everything as an experiment. I’m committed to almost nothing, right? We have certain values in our organization that we will hold true, and we have a general attitude that we will protect. But by and large, anything that we do from systems and process perspective, most of our team, I think at this point knows it’s going to change. Don’t get married to it, if you love it because it’s effective, awesome. Advocate for how well that works. But the reality is we should always be testing and tweaking something. And in our style of business, everything we do gets broken down into one or two weeks sprints. So, chunks of time that we’re executing against projects. It’s allowed us to deliver with speed and confidence and clarity.
Testing and Tweaking: Structure Incentives
Morgan Lopes: But then also we get to tweak things every single week or two, a little bit different to try and improve and develop that process. But yeah, sometimes we just… we want to settle in a little bit. And we can structure these incentives to not map back to actually what’s best for the person that’s experiencing them, or even the business in that manner. Right? You may have an inside salesperson who goes outside sales and they start failing, right? Well, that’s not good for the business. That’s not good for the person. People don’t like to lose, and you didn’t really see it coming with those misaligned incentives.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. So, talking about attitude and how you do things, and things you won’t give up. Let’s talk about your email.
Morgan Lopes: Okay.
Josh Sweeney: So, this is something that’s come up. You’re doing something I’ve thought about doing multiple times. I had a friend do the same thing, but like tell us about your email footer, and what you’re telling people. And the kind of almost the culture that you’re conveying about your time.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah. So, a big theme for us is around this idea of human-centered business. So, getting back to people over process, and really rejecting a lot of what industrialization has taught us about the value of a person, right? That they are replaceable, where the reality is they’re not. And they’re not cogs in a wheel. The greatest value that humans have to contribute is in collaboration and adaptability. And so, in a lot of ways that comes back to how we live our lives. One thing that we’ve tried to default to is in-person interactions, human to human. This is great being here together, over with the screen separating us, or even not even be able to see each other. So, in my email footer it actually just communicate something that I started doing a couple of years earlier, that… where I would just batch my emails.
Human-Centered Business: Emails
Morgan Lopes: So, twice a day I would check my email, usually like the first thing I kind of cleared out a little bit, and then either after lunch or before I walk out the door, I would zero out my inbox. And I started doing this for a while and I found that, okay, cool, like this works for me and it’s really great. But then I asked myself, what does it feel like to be on the receiving end of that correspondence? And sometimes you send somebody a message and oftentimes we can feel like it’s a text, right? I should hear back pretty quickly, and it’s been six hours and I haven’t heard anything. Are they okay? So, what I started doing was at the bottom of my footer, or bottom of my email, adding a kind of like a PS that just says, “Hey, I’m doing email a little bit differently to prioritize human interactions. I’m only checking this twice a day.”
Morgan Lopes: And then usually I try and clear it out at least once a day. Sometimes it’s in the morning or whatever. And just stating that has been a game-changer. The number of people who… they’ll like to disregard my actual email, I got a question for them. They won’t even answer the question, and they’ll come back, “Hey, oh my gosh, your footer in your email is amazing. You mind if I use this?” So, then I shared a little bit more about why, and kind of linked to it. It’s been really interesting to see not just the attitude shift of me personally trying to prioritize that, but then also just communicating it to others has taken something that was just natural part of my schedule and made it something… almost like an invitation for others to come and be a part of this thing that is taking back more of our lives and prioritizing those human behaviors.
Human-Centered Business: Prioritizing Work
Morgan Lopes: It’s been great. I would definitely recommend it. If you feel a slave to the inbox, just setting that expectation is really huge, because even employers who feel this like chronic urge to always check, always have your phone on, always have push notifications. When you just tell them like, “Hey look, I’m trying to get work done. I’m prioritizing the work that you’re paying me to do. I’m doing that over just responding to emails.” It can be really impactful. And I’ve seen for me personally, more mental clarity, more space. And then usually when I’m with somebody, I try to have my phone out of sight, which then sends a message like, “Hey, I’m here. I’m all in. Nothing’s going to distract me.” I can create a little bit of a problem if my wife is trying to get in contact with me.
Morgan Lopes: We’ve had a baby during this transition too actually, and she was very concerned that if she was heading to the hospital, she wouldn’t get in touch with me. I was like, “Yeah, but the person I’m within that moment is going to feel so valued.” You know.
Human-Centered Business: Communication
Josh Sweeney: Right.
Morgan Lopes: It didn’t work very well. But yeah, so it’s been a great transition and yeah, it was just the value of communicating that to people has been really huge.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. Well, I love the concept because so many people, as you said, they put this pressure on email, like when you’re supposed to respond. I was a consultant at a company at one point and it’s all about the billable hour, how many were getting done, what we’re getting done for the client. Some of it like what you do is heads-down work. You’re programming, you’re trying to come up with a solution, and you just need to head down and not distracted. And like the policy at the company as we need to respond to everybody’s email within one hour. And I’m like, “Guys, it’s impossible.” You know, I just, I basically flat out told him, I said, “It’s not going to happen.” If you want responses within one hour, you need somebody monitoring my email box. And I’m happy to help them do that. I’ll help in any way that I can, but I can’t be working on a solution that takes four hours worth of work that’s due tomorrow, and trying to check every email I have.” Because it’s not just answering an email, it’s going and finding the solution or answering the question of resources.
Morgan Lopes: Absolutely.
Expectation Minus Communication Equals Frustration
Josh Sweeney: Whatever else it is.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah.
Josh Sweeney: It’s not a, hey and… So yeah, there’s all kinds of challenges with email and the immediacy issue. So yeah, I’ve talked to a few people that have this where they leave their inbox off, and they have some sort of message like you have… where it’s, I check it twice daily, kind of hope to get to you.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah. There was a mentor that I had at one point in time, and he would always say that Expectation minus communication is what actually equals frustration. So, I have an expectation, somebody else has an expectation. If we don’t talk about it, if we don’t know that it’s there, then that’s when we get frustrated. And so by stating it, “Hey, I’m only going to do this time. Here’s when I’m going to get to it.” And then honor that, right? It outlines my expectation and sets their expectations appropriately, and then it eliminates that frustration because at least they know what to expect, right? There’s no surprise when Morgan doesn’t get back to you within an hour, because-
Josh Sweeney: He told you he wasn’t going to-
Morgan Lopes: I told you I’m not going back to you in an hour, right?
Josh Sweeney: Right.
Morgan Lopes: Like I stated that upfront. So, that’s been something that I think has been really impactful. And then even encouraging our team to do that, I think has set a tone for us organizationally that said, “Hey, get meaningful work done. There’s a great book by Cal Newport, it’s called Deep Work. And it talks about how the most impactful work we’ll do in our lives is work that requires us to just be focused in this zone, in a state of flows I would call it. And we want that for our clients. We want to produce incredible work for our clients, and the only way we’re going to get there is if we protect the time and energy of our team. And we made a shift about two years ago moving all of our clients into Slack, which is a chat tool. And so we have our team in Slack, our clients in Slack. It’s great, but it feels very instant.
It’s Not About Prompt Responses
Josh Sweeney: Right.
Morgan Lopes: So, we are always reminding our team, this is not about prompt responses, and our PM oftentimes will tap me, her name is Allie, and, “Hey, did you get that message from so and so?” “When did it come through?” “I was like 15-30 minutes ago.” I was like, “Cool, I’ll help you get to the answer to this, but do not respond right now. You need to sit on that answer.”
The success of the Team is NOT the Success of the Franchise
Josh Sweeney: Yeah.
Morgan Lopes: Well, why? I mean… You kind of have like go, go, go, go, go. I’m like, “Look because you are going to set an expectation that we will respond within an hour.” And I was like, “And we are not. We cannot deliver… I don’t feel confident in asking our team to have that kind of response time when the greatest work that will contribute in life is due to heads downtime, and getting into a state of flow.” And so we want to set realistic expectations with our clients. So, oftentimes we will literally sit on responses just so that they understand, hey look, we got stuff going on. We don’t want to promise something that we could not deliver consistently. But trying to push that message as deep into our team, into our organization as possible because really, again, we are going to spend our lives doing something and we want that to be meaningful work. And it just doesn’t happen 15-minute blocks at a time. So-
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. Well, I mean there are two things that kind of pop into my mind with that. Like one, it’s interesting that you chose Slack to… like email, I get it. Email makes perfect sense. Everybody’s got a full inbox. You don’t want people just sitting there waiting for new emails to come in. So, that makes sense, but as Slack comes across to me, it’s a chat app, right? It almost feels like there should be a certain amount of immediacy to it. And you’re almost welcoming that by giving them access to Slack. So, how’s that kind of unfolded?
Morgan Lopes: Yeah, we usually there’s a lot of expectations standing on the front. So, one thing when we were onboarding a new team member, we’ll invite them in and then also just like communicate to them, “Hey, by the way, this is going to feel like a text, right? It’s going to feel… You’re going to want really quick feedback but you’re not going to get it. And here’s why. Because we’re doing the work that you’re paying us to do.” And sometimes you have to remind certain people, right, if they’re blowing us up, right? We get an email at 10:00, and then one at 10:15, and then one at 10:30 or a Slack message at 10:30, and then at 11:00, right? Boom boom, boom.
Josh Sweeney: Right.
Morgan Lopes: We’ll usually touch base before we go to lunch. Hey, by the way, we see you-
Josh Sweeney: Right.
Morgan Lopes: … but we’re working. And so we’re going to get to this. But we’ll get to it before the end of today. Fortunately, the work that we do, we build software for people, very early-stage ideas. We’re not making pacemakers, so I’m constantly reminding our team, “Hey, we’re not making a pacemaker. Nobody’s going to die before we get this response.” And then again, if we always come back to, we want to build remarkable experiences is one thing that’s really huge for us, and to do great work. And I think at first it can feel a little like, oh, but I just want this answer, right?
The Path to a Great Product
Josh Sweeney: Yeah.
Morgan Lopes: Because that’s what we get from society. But ultimately when we tell them, “Yeah, but we’re building your product, your technology, your app, don’t you want it to be great? Cool. Well, the path to a great product is through this process that we have. So, if you break this, just realize you’re asking us to devalue the work that you’re paying us for.” Like that, usually doesn’t get to that, right? They can do the math, they can connect the dots, and then they start to ultimately respect the fact that hey, these people understand the value of their time. And that’s huge. I think that is a huge shift that humanity we’ve lost a little bit of that. Just with social media and just how accessible everything is on our phone, it just… We get bombarded by these things, but the reality is still the most meaningful work we will do in our lives will require tremendous amounts of heads down, focus, time and attention. And so I want to, as best I can, honor that for our team and just remind them over and over again, we’re not making pacemakers. I can probably wait.
It’s Not a Pacemaker
Josh Sweeney: And on top of that, you’re not a support organization, right? You’re not a support team. You’re not a managed services team. You’re building software. You have a sprint outlined. I’m betting that that’s even communicated to the other people, the customers that you have because I know when we were building CRM software it’s the same thing. I would get calls all the time that they wanted to answer. And I’m like the sprint, you have access, you can see what we’re working on, like-
Morgan Lopes: Right.
Josh Sweeney: But a lot of people really feel like this is an immediate issue. But like you said, it’s not a pacemaker.
The Client Handbook
Morgan Lopes: Yeah. That’s right. And there are certain people that they don’t like that style of work. They don’t like that workflow. And honestly, if we did have a business that the stakes were a little bit higher, then, of course, we would need to adapt to respond to that. But yeah, oftentimes we find that, okay, well maybe they’re just not our people. Right? Maybe if the way that they want to work is going to get in the way of us actually being able to deliver what they’ve paid us for, maybe it’s best that they work with a group that’s going to be able to fill these prompt responses. Yeah, we tend to not have too much of an issue though, especially now, we have a client handbook that we set expectations on upfront. So, before we even start working, we’re just laying out, hey, this is what’s coming. This is what’s going to happen. This is how we think about things.
Morgan Lopes: And again, the more and more we just communicated those expectations ahead of time, when they experience it, we’re like, “Hey, remember that moment where we said, we’re going to be doing awesome work for you, and we’re going to be working. This is that moment.”
Josh Sweeney: All right.
Morgan Lopes: “Welcome. Congratulations. You’re here.”
Josh Sweeney: You’re here.
Morgan Lopes: You know. So yeah, that’s been really great. And we’re always looking for ways to improve that experience because at the moment it’s not exciting when I want an answer and you’re not getting it. But the reality is it’s… yeah, but we’re playing the long game here. Right? Big picture question. So yeah, expectation setting is as huge.
Josh Sweeney: Love it. So, tell us a little bit about the culture of Polar Notion.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah. So at Polar Notion, we build a lot of early-stage ideas, so doing web and mobile apps. A lot of startups and entrepreneurs, and then small to medium-sized businesses that are maybe trying something new, or trying to capture a certain level of efficiency or productivity within their business. And so for us, it’s really important that we have headed downtime and attention to focus on things. Organizationally for us, we’ve always valued collaboration. Like that’s been really, really huge. I would say if I had to pick one thing for us that that really outlines our culture, it’s actually team lunches. There’s something about the way that we’ve done team lunches, if I look back to 2012 when we started, Josh and I were friends before we started the business. We knew each other for about 10 years before starting.
Morgan Lopes: And yeah, we’d just grab lunch together every day. And the idea has shut the laptop, step away, get a little bit of mental space, rest your mind so that then you can come back after lunch and reengage. And so, we would go out to eat or we would stay in. And I think back when we were meeting at my apartment, we’d play like X box or something. And as we start adding team members, we would keep that same ritual, right? Of hey, we’re going to step back. It is not an optional kind of thing, very rare that we would work through lunch. And so this idea of taking a break or resting when appropriate, and then working when appropriate, and kind of balancing those I think started us off down this road of asking harder questions around what creates a good work environment, versus a typical work environment?
Morgan Lopes: So, something for us we’re very mindful of is what I would consider as the traditional agency, right? Which is go, go, go, go, go chaos, respond to things, hair’s always on fire. You’re probably working until 10:00 at night. And then usually they’ve found is that in this industry about two years you start to reach this level of burnout. And we started to ask ourselves, what if we could create an agency that you could work at for decades? Right? What if that was an experience? And then what is the value of having team members who want to be here for that amount of time? What kind of client experiences does that create? And so for us as a team, again, collaboration is really huge. We have this core value that we call being effectively human. So effective in the sense that that’s how computers work, right?
Effectively Human: Belief
Josh Sweeney: Yeah.
Morgan Lopes: And then a human in the sense that that’s ultimately why the computers should service humans better. That’s the… In their correct alignment.
Josh Sweeney: Right.
Morgan Lopes: But, so we are people who talk to machines and so we want to be effectively human.
Josh Sweeney: That need to serve us.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah, yeah. So, we want to balance this dichotomy of being effectively human, and one of the things within that is being able to disagree well, right? So, you have a set of beliefs that probably guide how you live. I have probably a set that something’s overlap and some things differently. And in society today we’re taught that if I don’t agree with you on something, then we’re going to get really angry and we’re probably going to raise our voices. And then we’re going to like a rush to equal sides of the aisle, and apparently, we’re going to yell across it. Right?
Effectively Human: Dialogue
Josh Sweeney: All right.
Morgan Lopes: And one thing that has been true to who we are is being able to disagree well. So, you can have a point and I’m going to listen to you because I’m going to respect who you are as a person and your viewpoint, and how it may differ. And then on my end, I would hope that as I share things, you would listen to me and we can have… We call it a dialogue. Right? We can discuss certain things. Yeah. It’s pretty great.
Josh Sweeney: I like the air quotes.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah.
Respecting the Differences
Josh Sweeney: on the podcast.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah. And I think that’s something that’s been lost, right? We don’t get a lot of that in society. We don’t see that in the media. It’s really just a screaming match. And so for us, lunches tend to be very circuitous time, like conversations just ebb and flow. And by the end, we’re like, how did we get to this topic? But usually whatever is being discussed, a barometer for me is, is everyone just chill, right? As if you were on the back patio hanging out with friends cooking hamburgers. Like can we have those kinds of just chill conversations? We disagree, you have your opinions, I have mine. But at the end of the day, we respect each other. That’s fundamental for us, because in the heart of a project, right, I’m going to have a way that I think is the right way, and you’re going to have an idea whether you’re the client or a team member. And at that moment I need to be able to look at the problem that I’m trying to solve, and not the differences that divide us.
Withholding Separates Us
Morgan Lopes: Because at the end of the day, we should be united trying to solve that same problem. And so that’s huge. And that backs into a lot of what we want to do. Also, this was about a year and a half ago, we looked at what are the things that get in the way of people collaborating well? And usually one of the big things that happen, this is social, this is in relationships, this is on teens is secrets, right? If I’ve got something that I’m withholding from you, and we’re trying to accomplish something together, it’s going to get in the way there, right? Whether you know it or not, it’s occupying mental space for me. There’s like this veil that kind of separates us. And so compensation, salaries tend to have that for teams and companies.
Morgan Lopes: In many cases, my wife worked for a corporation and she was instructed like, “You will not talk to your coworkers about-“
Josh Sweeney: Right, there’s a policy for this.
Morgan Lopes: There’s a policy. Right. And I heard that and I was like, “That’s really interesting. Who benefits from that?” The only person who benefits is the employer, right? Of having… of each person not knowing how much the other person makes. Because the reality is we could have a pay disparity-
Clearly Defining Expectations
Morgan Lopes: … and if I knew that I was making $20,000 a year less than you, well how do I feel? Probably pretty devalued. But then how do you feel? You probably feel a little bit of like, well man, this is my team member like we’re in… If we’re really in this together and you own into that, you’re probably not feeling great about that either. Like, oh that just is icky. Right? And then at the end of the day, what am I going to do? I’m going to go to my employer and be like, “What the heck? He makes more than me. Let’s talk about this.” And now they’ve got to try and pay me more, or they’re going to fire me. Right? All these issues. And so we start to ask ourselves, what would it look like if we clearly defined a growth trajectory here, mapped it back to compensation, to benefits and everything was clearly defined? All of those expectations, and then told everybody.
Josh Sweeney: Yeah.
Foster Community and Collaboration
Morgan Lopes: Now, this is not something that we would publish live, because there are certain team members that, hey, you know what, if their parents knew how much they made, they’d become knocking, right? And so, we’re not looking to-
Josh Sweeney: You’ll be
Morgan Lopes: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, and so the idea is not to create that, but internally to foster community and collaboration, to break down all those walls that get in the way. So, we went through the work, it took months to like get a clear path here, divided the organization into six levels. And then every role maps back to one of these or has six levels attached to it everywhere from an intern. Which we tell them pretty straight up, “Hey, this is what this all looks like.” And then all the way up to a principal in the business, clearly defined, and then share that with the team. At one point in time when we were rolling it out, it was very much like vision casting. Here’s where we’re heading, fortunately, everyone got a raise, which is… We did a lot of research and found that everyone’s got a win something when you make the jump. But start to spell that out much more clearly.
Transparency First Policy
Morgan Lopes: And then we realized, not that there were a lot of conversations about it anyway, because again the traditional policy, air quotes again, you don’t talk about that. So, there wasn’t a lot anyway, but then afterward we found that once everything was clearly defined, it just went back to normal. But the great part is I don’t have to worry about leaving my computer open with everyone’s payroll listed, right? Because it’s like whatever, it’s not going to surprise anybody. It’s very clear. Or one team member finding out and there’s… We don’t have to have a policy. Our policy is transparency first, which then adds value to our team members. And then ultimately for us organizationally, we’ve got to have our crap together so that we can pay everyone what they’re worth.
Morgan Lopes: But even things like diversity, gender pay gaps, and diversity pay gaps, and all these things that the marketplace is trying to figure out, what do you do with? Well, if you don’t have secrets-
Josh Sweeney: It’s easy.
Morgan Lopes: … yeah, it’s really not easy because of you just… they can self-police. And then it also tells in… early in the hiring process, we just let people know, “Hey look, there’s not going to be a negotiation about your compensation. Based on your skills and abilities, we feel like you fit here. If you think you’re more experienced, then make a case for yourself. But the reality is if this is where you land, this is how much you will get paid. If you’re not comfortable with that, hey, this is probably not the best place for you.” And there have been a couple of people where we just… I wanted to hire them so bad, and I was like, “Can we just make an exception to this whole thing?” Yeah. Yeah, you kind of get held accountable there, which is great and it needs to happen, but we’ll send that upfront. I don’t want to waste your time, interview or two in, this is what our compensation looks like when you get to the end of the road. If you map back to this is what your comps like.
Morgan Lopes: That has been huge for us. And I think more than anything puts our money where our mouth is in terms of do we really value people? When we say we want to create remarkable experiences, remarkable products for people, how much time, energy, and effort are we willing to invest in making that a reality? And that was something where plenty of people I still talk to are like, “Yeah, we’re just not going to do that.” I’m like, “Hey, this is not for everyone.” I will admit but for us, we just realized if we are trying to set the pace for human-centered business, this has to be front and center. And what better way to do it than attach a price tag to it, and then tell everybody?
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. I mean, I think people don’t do it because it’s the hard way, right? It’s the right way. It’s intuitive. It makes sense. But it’s the hardest route as well. It’s easier just to do it as everybody else does it instead of the way it probably should be done. And there are all kinds of effects. Like you have to turn away good people, “Hey, you don’t fit. You don’t fit in the system. You don’t fit based on the pay scale, whatever it is. Sorry.” You know, and that can be very complicated. I know I’ve worked at companies where our version of junior well it seemed to be everybody else’s version of a senior developer. And when they got in and they were around that team, they realized that it was right. But trying to convey that message during a hiring process that like, “Well you’re, you’ve got great skills but your version of having senior because you have four years doesn’t really compute to talent. It just means you’ve been doing it for years.”
Morgan Lopes: And for us, we see that-
Josh Sweeney: And that’s a big challenge.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah, that’s exactly right. We see that with our definition of a junior engineer, which in the industry, and I’m sure you’ve experienced this, nobody really knows what these things mean.
Position Definition: Making it Clear
Josh Sweeney: Right. It’s some number of years that mean nothing.
Morgan Lopes: You’re right. And so we’ve defined it, and we said for us, this is what they mean. It’s very clear, and you have to have production experience. So, if you’ve come out of code school, it’s great. We love hiring people out of code school and teaching and training them. But I cannot call them a junior engineer. Because they have zero experience working on a live production application. Right?
Josh Sweeney: Yeah.
Making the Frank Conversations
Morgan Lopes: So, when they come in and they’re like, here’s what I’m expecting, and many people go to a code school, come out wanting $90,000. I’m like, “Hey, look, you know what? That’s awesome. I like the idea of you making $90,000-“
Josh Sweeney: But we’re at 60.
Morgan Lopes: Right. Well, I’m like, “But here’s what I know to be true about a junior engineer, and a junior engineer has one to three years of experience as defined here. Because we know that as an organization we can’t afford to pay a junior engineer with less than three years of experience any more than this. We’re going to consider you an apprentice. You can come in, you can level up, and if you achieve this many months in our organization, we will set you as a junior engineer. It creates some very frank conversations, and they’re not easy conversations. Like, nobody likes telling somebody, “Hey, you think you’re really hot stuff, but based on math, you’re not.”
Josh Sweeney: Right.
Morgan Lopes: but organizationally it’s like, well, but it’s clear, right? And then when a new person joins the team, our team now knows, oh, this person fits. They meet the expectations, there’s no question of are they qualified? Right? Well, let’s go look. Let’s go look at the chart. We have an excel spreadsheet, let’s look it up, if you don’t think they are, make a case. But usually doesn’t get to that, because we’ve just, again, over-communicated those expectations on the front end. And maybe our definition is wrong. We’re always willing to change it-
Josh Sweeney: But out pretty true. Right?
Morgan Lopes: Yeah. I mean again, most people don’t know anyway, so when they come in they’re like, “Wait, you’ve defined this?” That’s groundbreaking, so…
Josh Sweeney: Yeah. Well, I know I’ve had it come up as well in other positive ways, the whole salary conversation because… Or I guess going back and starting off there is no awkward salary conversation right? When you have to pay bands, it’s like this is where you’re going to fall. This is how much this position starts. This is where it grows too. It’s very clear. It’s not, well how much do you want to make? And that whole awkward sense.
Morgan Lopes: Right, right.
Josh Sweeney: I know it’s worked out for me because I worked for a company that had pay bands, and I asked for one thing and they’re like, “Well, the position you’re going for, which you’re more than qualified is here,” I got more than I asked for.
Morgan Lopes: There you go.
Turnover is Expensive
Josh Sweeney: And I kind of took that away. I was like, wow, that’s it. That was a really good feeling. And I’ve done that a time or two in our company too, where it’s like, well that person’s asking for this, but I really feel like they… I need to go a couple thousand above, right? Because they could easily go find another job for a couple thousand above, so why don’t I just go ahead and bite the bullet, offer it to them. It gives them a wow experience, and they’re not searching for a few thousand dollars difference in six months from now.
Morgan Lopes: Well, and that’s the thing now. Turnover is expensive-
Josh Sweeney: Yeah.
Morgan Lopes: Right, when people, you train them, you spend the time and energy invest in them and then they leave. That’s really expensive. A friend of mine worked at an Apple retailer, retail location and I think the math was somewhere around there. Their lowest paid team member, like the front people who kind of just corral you into a scheduler. They at… Apple knows that it takes about eight months to replace them when they leave.
Turnover is Expensive: Be Objective
Josh Sweeney: Wow.
Morgan Lopes: From like training, manpower, time, energy, for when one of them walks out the door fully trained to get the next one up to speed, eight months. How much more for high-end professional services? It’s a really expensive cost, so losing people… And if they’re your people, right? If they are the type of people who fit your culture, your values, your mission, they’re great at what they do. Whoa. Right? Because you may go out in the marketplace and try and find… You got to interview 50 candidates, to get down to 10, to get down to three, to maybe make an offer to one. And who knows? It’s just a big roll of the dice. And so yeah, turnover’s really expensive. So, making it very objective, there’s not really surprising.
Morgan Lopes: Surprises are great for birthdays, but at the end of the day, when it’s our jobs and our families and our livelihoods, I think we owe it to our people to be very clear, and then honor that really in each decision that we make. It takes time, it takes a ton of energy, and even recently we decided to drop the idea of junior engineer. So, it’s just a software engineer, after apprentice, you become a software engineer. And then mid and senior. But something about the title of junior was again, I haven’t felt this in a while, but it was like I guess demeaning or something.
Getting Rid of the Awkward Conversation
Josh Sweeney: Right.
Morgan Lopes: And so cool, well let’s just get rid of it, right? Whatever, it doesn’t… How cheap is it to drop junior off of the front or something? It’s really inexpensive. And so yeah, we want to tweak and adjust it, and we want to be very reasonable. But also at the end of the day, having something objectively spelled out, and then defending that and honoring that for the rest of your team as you grow. We’ve found that it really starts to reduce these really awkward conversations of, holy cow, we hired this person here, our team has quadrupled in size. And now we hired somebody three levels lower at $20,000 a year more just because we had the cash on hand and we needed them in the door. That’s so uncomfortable, because now-
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, that’s going to come up later.
Morgan Lopes: Oh absolutely.
Josh Sweeney: Somehow.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah. A great friend of mine had that happen. He was at an organization for a couple of years, and very truly a senior level guy and, he was like in, right? Bought into the team, the mission, the vision, and I think there was about a 30,000 to $40,000 pay gap between him and his junior counterpart. And he’s… I think something got upended in HR email, right?
Compensation is just the Tip of the Iceberg
Josh Sweeney: Those things that happen.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah. So, the HR person sent over an email that had this thing attached to the bottom. He saw this pay breakdown, and like you can’t unsee that. No. Right? And maybe he left six months or a year later, or two years, whatever. From that moment it was never going to be the same. And so, setting ourselves up organizationally where we just… we want as few of those moments as possible. Right? Even the chance of that impropriety happening, because they also like how horrible do you think the HR person felt when they found out like, “Oh my gosh, now she’s got to go have a hard conversation with her boss. Or maybe she doesn’t say it. Now, insert more secrets.” Anyway, so as we’ve come back to valuing people, people first, and ultimately trying to amplify humanity in the workplace, it’s led us down some very interesting and challenging paths. Compensation is really just the tip of the iceberg, but…
Josh Sweeney: Yeah, definitely. Well, I wish we had more time to get into more of those, more than compensation and everything else that we’ve discovered today about you and Polar Notion. But thank you for joining us on the podcast. It’s been amazing.
Morgan Lopes: Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Announcer: Thank you for tuning in to today’s episode of the Epic Company Culture podcast with Josh Sweeney. If you enjoyed this content, please subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For additional content and transcripts, visit epicculture.co. If you have questions or topics you would like us to address or expand on, tweet us @epicculture1, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Podcast Highlights and Resources
- I think the more team members can be adaptable and just yeah, work through those changes, typically the more successful they can be with the business.
- Human-centered business. People over process,
- Expectation minus communication is what actually equals frustration.
- Effectively human.
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