Lesson 1 — Product: Respect and Address the Product Needs of the Thoughtful Shy Voice Compared to the Self-Centric Bold Voice
We learned the hard way that business software is often built by alpha males for alpha males. Default User persona: Ask forgiveness not permission. While managing our remote distributed workforce of mainly female accountants — the HireAthena Field Team — we grossly underestimated the software needs of the thoughtful rule-followers, whose voice was drowned out by the shoot-first-ask-questions-later communication style of our clients.
My company almost failed three years in, despite doubling revenue every year. We were forced to pause growth and develop Scalus, a workflow engine that neutralized the varying levels of self-advocacy found in our diverse cross-functional, cross-organizational team. We tried seven different collaboration tools — from Asana to Zendesk — without success, and the company almost died until we created our own solution.
Imagine an environment where stunned silence from the Shy Voice is more often than not interpreted as agreement by the Bold Voice…until it’s too late. We needed but couldn’t find software to support a conservative, risk-averse Field Team conditioned to communicate less rather than more due to a lifetime of gender programming.
We observed that while most men brag and blame with immunity, many women are afraid to be judged for exhibiting the same behavior (ironically by other women). So they erred on the side of under communicating, which caused massive service delivery failures. We had to build nuanced software — Scalus — that would automagically brag and blame or stand up for them. It was a matter of survival that we aggressively addressed the collaboration needs of a cross-functional team, across organizations, in a way that neutralized gender programming.
In our experience, Trump Country is filled with thoughtful doers that respect authority, follow rules, and resist risk and change as a result. They call themselves conservative for a reason. The communication products chosen to collaborate with them are critical.
Lesson 2 — Process: Training is a Continual Change Management Process Rather than a New Employee Onboarding Step
At HireAthena we woefully underestimated the level of discomfort felt by our remote Field Team as we rolled out changes at a startup pace. Small adjustments to an ongoing tactical plan were often perceived as massive shifts in the strategic direction of the company. The “calibrate as you go and learn” mantra of Silicon Valley was unfathomable, and those coming from industries and companies that have not evolved in decades questioned the competence of Management. When relatively minor adjustments are received as unplanned, out-of-control reactions, the idea of change management takes a new meaning.
We put a lot of thought into this problem when designing Scalus, and we’ve come up with a solution that systematically scales Process Management in a way that allows shy voices to be heard. Workflows become automatically recurring, so the more risk averse users can always anticipate what’s coming, and when. This has created a culture where people don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room to be a self advocate, and that is a core value of how we build process at HireAthena.
Lesson 3 — People: Et Tu, Brute? When an Employee Is Asked to Leave a Mission-Driven Company, Failure is Personal and the Sense of Betrayal is Emotional, So Setting Expectations Early and Often is Critical
In Silicon Valley, the talent market can get so tight that any competent resource can find another opportunity in a day or so. As employers, we coddle the nimble “disruption” junkies that seek change like an addictive drug, with gourmet meals, onsite massage services, and the ubiquitous foosball table decor to communicate forced fun.
With venture capital flooding the streets, the demand for talent often exceeds supply, and it takes great discipline to treat the recruiting process more diligently than a round of speed-dating. As CEO, my greatest failing has been not exercising more diligence, compassion and empathy during the recruiting process to validate long-term fit. It doesn’t matter that our staff turnover has been lower than that of other startups, it matters that our staff is more vulnerable to unemployment than the Silicon Valley talent pool of serial job hoppers. It matters that these moms feel personally betrayed by the company for being part of the establishment that has failed them and their families, and I have the battle wounds from Glassdoor to prove it. I understand how hard it is to be a working parent or a child of parents working around the clock. Disappointment quickly turns to anger and a sense of betrayal toward a system that has failed them — a system represented by Hillary Clinton in the eyes of many.
I’m most embarrassed by the fact that we could have avoided a big part of this sense of betrayal by setting expectations more thoughtfully from the very beginning. We now start those new to work-from-home arrangements or the startup culture as temporary employees. We clarify early in the process that we are a financially responsible, profitable (!) company, setting out to prove that it is good business to employ work-from-home parents, rather than another Silicon Valley experiment with an unrealistic and perhaps naive profit-will-come-later mentality.
We have made many mistakes along the way, but hope that we will be able to help other technology companies avoid those mistakes. These American communities desperately need jobs, the jobs that we have trouble filling in the innovation hubs. The technology is here to enable it — in fact, it’s being used to send the jobs overseas.
One of our competitors brags that her software-enabled accounting, tax, and payroll firm will lay to waste the US accounting industry with millions of employees. I admire the audacity of this youth-induced bravado, but others in the heartland may feel the opposite, and we can’t blame them. From what we understand, her company is building a large facility in the Philippines to house foreign US-educated CPAs who will work for less than a quarter of what US-based CPAs need to support their families. This is not a good use of US venture capital. The reality is that AI machines will soon do the work for virtually no cost, but that is a whole separate matter.
Over the past ten years, I’ve observed that many new entrants in the accounting, payroll, and benefits technology space are Canadian or Australian, helping put some of the US Main Street business advisors out of work. We can’t ignore the panic of xenophobia for those affected. The system is just not working for Americans struggling to stay in the middle class. Why are we so surprised that they are angry? We owe Donald Trump a debt of gratitude for waking us up to this reality. Now let’s do something about it!