Christmas at import·io
Christmas at import·io
Christmas is always one of my favorite times of year at import·io. Okay, so when I say Christmas, what I really mean is the two weeks surrounding the Christmas holiday – even I’m not crazy enough to work over the holidays. At import·io we take this time to observe two traditions which I believe are essential in the growth and development of the company: an internal hackathon and an off-site.
A Very Merry Hackathon
Instead of just letting things peeter out at the end of the year, we use the week before Christmas to do an internal hackathon. Basically, I split everyone evenly into two teams who then have a week to brainstorm, develop and market a product. The only rule – other than no working after 6 – is that their product must use our technology in some way. At the end of the week, each team pitches their project to the judges and the winning team receives a prize – needless to say this can become quite competitive.
The hackathon is a great opportunity for us to step back and use our product – often in anger – for a week, as if we were a user. Seeing things from a user’s perspective keeps us on our toes and makes sure we don’t stagnate as a company. It’s why we started doing the weekly Friday Challenge, in which we have one hour to solve a data problem using our tool. The hackathon gives us the chance to expand on this principle and delve a little deeper into the product, allowing us to experience both the power of our platform and its limitations.
The hackathon is also a good opportunity for the team to showcase their creativity. It gives them a chance to really stretch themselves – and what they come up with is truly astounding. Last year’s winners created a Chrome extension which highlighted proper nouns in an online article and showed you information about them – from multiple sources – when you hovered over the word, meaning you could look up a reference without leaving the page. Often we end up using parts of hackathon projects as proof of concepts or side products.
From a morale perspective, the hackathon serves another very important purpose. The team works very hard all year – the time from September to November was exceptionally busy this year – and by the time we get to Christmas everyone tends to be a little burnt out. Taking the last week of the year to take a break from the daily grind and have a little fun is critical. It ends the year on a light-hearted, positive note and people leave for the holidays excited to come back in January.
Over the River and Through the Woods, to the Offsite We Go
Instead of chucking people back into the fray right after New Years, we take advantage of the fact that everyone is well rested and fresh to do a company off-site. For the first full week in January we take everyone away from the office to a house in the country. Not only is this a good welcome back for the team, but it is where we do the majority of our long-term planning.
You Must Look Back to Move Forward
The off-site begins with a team-wide retrospective – something we also try to do quarterly – to allow us to reflect on the past year and assess what we did well and what we could have done better. It’s an opportunity to look at our performance in an objective, non-judgmental way to see where we can improve and grow as a team. It also allows us to define our inward facing goals such as management style, communication, organization and culture.
We couple this retrospective with a vision exercise to reconfirm what the company stands for and why it exists. Working for a startup comes with long hours and high stress levels. It is very important to me, therefore, that everyone buys into the vision of the company. I expect my team to work hard, not because they have stock options or because I pay them, but because they truly believe in what we are trying to achieve. This exercise also serves to reinforce our high-level company goals and get everyone in the right mindset for the next planning phase.
Once we’ve answered the existential questions of where we’ve been and why we exist, we get down to the nitty gritty and focus on the more specific goals and themes for the coming year. It’s important to do this as a group so that everyone understands what we are working towards at a higher level. Then, in smaller teams, we break these goals into objectives and translate them into quarterly OKRs (Objective and Key Results), otherwise known as the key results needed to achieve your objectives. This method of planning was made famous by Google, has become very popular in the valley and has proven to be very effective because of its focus on specific, measurable results.
Location, Location, Location
Being able to do all this away from the office is critical for the success of the off-site. Stepping away from our environment allows us the space and clarity to approach problem solving from a different perspective. It also levels the playing field and helps make people feel comfortable in sharing their views and criticisms.
It’s also a great opportunity for the team to bond with one another. Matt, our CTO, is a fantastic cook and provides us with team meals during the week. We take walks through the countryside, play card games at night, drink a bit of beer, and have a highly competitive Xbox tournament in the evenings – well, two of us do. At the end of the day it’s a great way to build camaraderie within the team and give everyone the chance to interact on a more relaxed, personal level; which builds a level of trust and respect that gets carried back to the office.
Maintaining the Startup Mentality
The tradition of taking everyone on an off-site is one that I think is very important to our culture and one that I hope to be able to continue as we mature and grow as a company. I firmly believe that it is important to maintain that startup mentality as you grow from 5 employees to 30 and beyond. A well-run off-site brings you closer as a team and sets everyone up on the same page for the rest of the year, giving us the renewed energy and focus we need to tackle our goals.
Not to mention it’s where we come up with some of our best ideas.