The end of bosses


The most innovative tech companies today aren’t just inventing new technology, they’re also building totally new kinds of companies. Mature startups like Valve and Github and smaller up-and-comers like Treehouse and Medium have done away with managers who boss people around and expect servile compliance.

Instead, these companies have a flat organizational structure of makers without a middle-management layer. Individuals manage themselves and each other to build awesome things through peer management. These are companies without bosses.

How does anything get done?

I admit that I was extremely skeptical about bossless companies when I first heard about them. But as I worked with and studied innovative companies like Zappos and up-and-comers like Wistia more closely, I saw how their focus on bottom-up company culture drove productivity and motivation without hierarchy and authority.

What’s at stake can’t be understated. As New York Times bestselling author on the future of work, Dan Pink, told me, the most disruptive force in enterprise organization that’s happening today is that “talented people need organizations less than organizations need talented people.” What that means is that to attract and retain the best talent, you have to create an environment rich in autonomy–because talented people don’t like to be told what to do.

In place of hierarchy, authority and control, bossless companies run on accountability, autonomy and trust. People who are stuck on the concept of the traditional hierarchical structure as the gold standard are often buying into a system of a lack of trust, which drives the need to control. Instead, peer management works by entrusting and empowering individuals to control themselves.

How bossless companies do it

1. Information for everyone, not just bosses

The essential ingredients of peer management like trust, accountability, peer feedback, and decision-making autonomy rely on transparency of information. The problem with old school, hierarchical companies is that managers end up operating as obstacles for spreading information freely within a company. And this only becomes a bigger problem as your company grows.

Companies like Foursquare and Buzzfeed use a system called Google snippets, which is an internal database where every employee writes down what they’ve been getting done — as pioneered by Google. In other companies, you may only get the story of what’s happening in the company through your boss, and they have the power to shape the narrative. In companies that use Google snippets, everyone knows what everyone gets done so that you aren’t beholden to your manager for information.

Social media marketing startup Buffer takes information transparency to an extreme. They use iDoneThis to share snippets of what they get done every day, but on top of that, everyone knows everyone’s salary, what everyone is reading, and even how much everyone on the team is sleeping.

2. Peer-driven recognition and accountability

In peer management settings, individuals steer themselves and others, and with that power comes great responsibility to be accountable and take on jobs formerly reserved for managers.

Bossless companies foster that culture of peer responsibility through tools and processes, such as periodic peer-driven 360 reviews and even peer compensation. At Shopify, employees created a system called Unicorn, where they positively emphasize accomplishments at work by giving public kudos for a job well done. Moreover, peer-driven bonuses come out of the kudos you receive on Unicorn. This creates a culture where employees congratulate and celebrate each others’ work — they don’t have to rely on a manager to do it.

3. Strengthen your culture with every new hire

Fit is paramount in peer management because having a bottom-up culture means that it’s all about the people.

Stripe applies what they call the Sunday test: “If this person was alone in the office on a Sunday, would that make you more likely to come in just to hang out with him? We only make a hire if the answer is a strong yes.” Having taken such effort to build a team they believe in, Stripe also allows everyone a veto for candidates.

Innovation and information have trouble traveling through hierarchies and managers, and so the most exciting companies today have chosen innovation over predictability. As former Intel CEO Andy Grove put it, “Let chaos reign, then rein in chaos.”

With peer management, accountability isn’t to a boss or supervisor, it’s to each other, your team, your company, your customers, and yourself. That’s way more motivating than being told what to do. Using peer management to build a culture that enables motivation, autonomy, and purpose makes work fulfilling and joyful, and yields innovative results.

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Reading: I Hate My Purse

Buy Nora Ephron’s book, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, here

I hate my purse. I absolutely hate it. If you’re one of those women who think there’s something great about purses, don’t even bother reading this because there will be nothing here for you. This is for women who hate their purses, who are bad at purses, who understand that their purses are reflections of negligent housekeeping, hopeless disorganization, a chronic inability to throw anything away, and an ongoing failure to handle the obligations of a demanding and difficult accessory (the obligation, for example, that it should in some way match what you’re wearing). This is for women whose purses are a morass of loose Tic Tacs, solitary Advils, lipsticks without tops, ChapSticks of unknown vintage, little bits of tobacco even though there has been no smoking going on for at least ten years, tampons that have come loose from their wrappings, English coins from a trip to London last October, boarding passes from long-forgotten airplane trips, hotel keys from God-knows-what hotel, leaky ballpoint pens, Kleenexes that either have or have not been used but there’s no way to be sure one way or another, scratched eyeglasses, an old tea bag, several crumpled personal checks that have come loose from the checkbook and are covered with smudge marks, and an unprotected toothbrush that looks as if it has been used to polish silver.

This is for women who in mid-July still haven’t bought a summer purse or who in midwinter are still carrying around a straw bag.

This is for women who find it appalling that a purse might cost five or six hundred dollars–never mind that top-of-the-line thing called a Birkin bag that costs ten thousand dollars, not that it’s relevant because you can’t even get on the waiting list for one. On the waiting list! For a purse! For a ten-thousand-dollar purse that will end up full of old Tic Tacs!

This is for those of you who understand, in short that your purse is, in some absolutely horrible way, you. Or, as Louis XIV might have put it but didn’t because he was much too smart to have a purse, Le sac, c’est moi.

I realized many years ago that I was no good at purses, and for quite a while I managed to do without one. I was a freelance writer, and I spent most of my time at home. I didn’t need a purse to walk into my own kitchen. When I went out, usually at night, I frequently managed with only a lipstick, a twenty-dollar bill, and a credit card tucked into my pocket. That’s about all you can squeeze into an evening bag anyway, and it saved me a huge amount of money because I didn’t have to buy an evening bag. Evening bags, for reasons that are obscure unless you’re a Marxist, cost even more than regular bags.

But unfortunately, there were times when I needed to leave the house with more than the basics. I solved this problem by purchasing an overcoat with large pockets. This, I realize, turned my coat into a purse, but it was still better than carrying a purse. Anything is better than carrying a purse.

Photo credit: Robert Knudsen/White House Photographs/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

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Uniqlo’s Amazing, Mysterious Hoodie

So I was at pick up. My daughter Cole asked if we could follow the crowd over to Cadman Plaza. When I walked along the benches under the budding trees, a Japanese babysitter, whose name I forget, flagged me down. Cole ran off with some friends to play on the turf as I eased myself down between the Japanese girl and a rather intense Nigerian nanny. I had nothing on my mind, much like a jaded fisherman in it for the long haul. Then I looked over at my Japanese playground buddy who hardly spoke a word of English, and my proverbial fishing rod started to jiggle. It was her neat hoodie catching my eye. “Um, is that a Kusama?” I asked, politely. She nodded and smiled.

I looked away for a second and then glanced back over at her boyish chest, fixating my eyes on a trippy yellow cartoony… um… something. It was either a gourd or an octopus (I know. I’ll have to talk to my analyst about that one) rendered in Kusama’s unique vocabulary of graphic dots. I thought about it for a second. “I really like your hoodie,” I said. I must have really been moved by her damn hoodie, ‘cause I continued with this invasive question that I generally never stoop so low to ask: “where did you get it?” My eyes were little bolts jumping off two microscopic tesla coils. I was inspired. “Uniqlo” she answered. “It was on sale.”

Maybe Yayoi Kusama was destined to be printed on the front of a hoodie, like Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” (c.1839), which seems, in retrospect, to have been meant for coffee mugs. Canvas never has been Kusama’s best ground. Look how much the absurd dots she painted on the surface of a living horse freed things up. And have you ever seen the quickly dissolving dots she painted—I swear—on a pond. Check out her seminal 8-millimeter silent film from 1967, Self Obliteration, where she wades into a pond naked and just starts applying red dots to the calm surface of the water.

MoMa Special Edition Hoodie

What can I say, the hoodie did it for me. It holds the Kusama cartoon in just the right way, and at just the right eye-level. My guess is that some young-ish Japanese junior designer (just like the girl sitting next to me) had climbed her way up from intern in the Uniqlo Design Department and finally got her shot. And her boss said “Yes! Yes! We like that dotted thing.” I could only assume that none of ‘em even knew it was a pirated Kusama.

When I got home, I hit the “Googles” and I discovered that Uniqlo was not actually the source of this whimsical hoodie that I just had to have. Fucking MoMA was the source! That quickly, my day was un-made. And to un-make it even worse, I discovered upon further exploration that the folks over at MoMA had thrown like 30 other artists into the mix—some dead guys as well as some rising stars—and had come out with a complete line of T-shirts and hoodies. Ugh. Even my main-man Jackson Pollock was included. The Big Bang of Pollock’s all-over abstractions had been reduced to three little spurts of white jizz across a black hoodie. What a turn off.

I looked back at the Kusama. For some strange reason, I still liked it. Yeah, I sent the link to my wife. She texted: “let’s take a Uniqlo field trip this weekend.” Let’s! Let’s all go to Uniqlo to buy art hoodies. I won’t buy the Pollack. But for some reason, I do want to see my daughter Cole in that cool black pullover hoodie with a dotted gourd.

Photo credit: Shinya Suzuki/Flickr

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Planting Happiness in the City, One Bouquet at a Time

If there’s one thing that Jeff Sheely and his team at WeWork Wonder Bread Factory have down pat, it’s how to send happiness. As cofounder of the D.C.- and New York-based startup UrbanStems, he uses his marketing skills and his co-founder Ajay Kori’s business mindset to create an on-demand flower delivery service.

“Our mission can really be summarized in a hashtag: #sendhappy,” explains Sheely, who started this first venture with his college mate Ajay Kori. “We really believe that flowers should be about everyday gifting. It’s a powerful feeling to be able to better someone’s day in just a few clicks.”

The blooming startup was conceived when Kori sent flowers to his girlfriend, but to his dismay, the flowers never arrived. Sheely shares that he’s had his own flower delivery woes because of the “lack of transparency” in the process: “You never really know if the delivery was good or not. As my bad flower experiences got worse, it really hit home with me.”

He commiserated with Kori, and they quickly found themselves getting into the flower business with no prior background in the industry — Kori did have e-commerce experience from working at Quidsi prior to UrbanStems, but they were determined to turn around people’s perceptions of ordering flowers. They were able to learn the inner workings of the industry and did everything themselves.

UrbanStems 2“We very much subscribe to the Lean Startup theory, so we literally tested and iterated everything since Day One,” says Sheely. “From the design of the flowers to the look of the website, operations process, everything has been a series of tests.”

UrbanStems launched the day before Valentine’s Day last year in D.C. during a snowstorm, and both cofounders did everything themselves.

“Ajay and I hopped into a friend’s SUV running around town doing all the deliveries by hand,” says Sheely, recalling the inches of snow they had to trek through to make sure all their orders were fulfilled. “Every time we showed up with flowers, customers’ initial reactions were usually, ‘How did you do that? Why are you here? This is amazing.’”

The duo weathered the storm, and the UrbanStems launch was considered a success.

In rain or shine, UrbanStems is determined to spread happiness with affordable prices and stylish bouquets with flowers sourced from eco-certified South American farms. Here’s how ordering from them works: Once you choose one of their curated seasonal bouquets and include a message, one of the team members will handwrite a note, attach it to the bouquet that’s ready to be sent from their distribution center, and give it to one of the bike couriers. The courier will zip it across town within an hour and take a photo of the bouquet in front of the recipient’s address. UrbanStems will email that photo to the sender to make sure the delivery got sent and that it’s exactly what was ordered.

Now UrbanStems has been expanding into new markets like New York City and recently announced their $1.5 million in seed funding. Sheely recalls that it was a great opportunity for him and his cofounder to make a lot of connections and to spread the word about their business.

At the end of the day, they consider themselves a tech company, and they believe that capturing data is a huge part of the process. “For us, the biggest thing we’re finding is that it’s about everyday gifting,” explains Sheely. They found that the majority of their customers are female, and it’s not always about romantic gestures.

“We’re going to do everything we can to help people find out what we’re doing, because once they try it out, they will want to keep spreading a lot more happiness,” says Sheely.

Photo credit:  Foster White – Tuckernuck (

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For WeWork’s Adam Neumann, It’s About Finding a Way to ‘Change the World’

“It was a failed social experiment,” WeWork founder Adam Neumann said of the kibbutz, the collective community in Israel in which he grew up. “As a teenager and as a child, it was the most unbelievable place to grow up. I was with my friends from morning till night. We ate in the same dining hall, we drove to the same school, and then we all did our homework together, or we didn’t do our homework together. It was awesome.”

Neumann loved the sense of community, but didn’t get why the kibbutz paid everyone the same salary regarding of how much effort they put in. Thus was seeded the inspiration for the company he would one day co-found and run, WeWork, which Neumann cheerfully described as a sort of Capitalist kibbutz.

He was speaking at TechCrunch Disrupt earlier this week, to an audience that—not surprisingly for a group of highly creative innovators across industries and disciplines—was not only familiar with WeWork but, in many cases, ensconced in one of its buildings. As could be expected for a company growing at such an exponential rate, much of the conversation revolved around numbers, be it the three million square feet WeWork currently occupies, the five million additional square feet it plans to add next year, or the 90,000 glasses of beer it serve its members worldwide just last month. It’s an impressive growth rate, but growth for its own sake, Neumann said, was never the point of WeWork.

“When Miguel and I started this company,” he said, “the intention was ‘Can we change the world?’ And if we taught other people to treat each other the way they want to be treated, even if they did it just a little bit, inside WeWork, will that make a difference? And we feel that all these things, the more time is passing, the more we let it happen, the bigger the difference is. So yes, community is definitely a difference, but I think the real difference is intention and meaning behind what we do.”

And it’s intention and meaning, he added, that are cherished above all by the We Generation, those people of all ages and all professions and all walks of life who define success as feeling well, doing good, being grateful for their good fortune, and leveraging community through social experience. These, Neumann added, are the people who’ve created the sharing economy, and the people who found an immediate and natural home in WeWork’s community of creators.

Photo credit: Lauren Kallen

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