Checks & Balances in a new and growing team

by oneafrikan on February 6, 2014

So, we’ve grown from 16 odd to around 45 in the space of 12 to 18 months. In that time we’ve grown with all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Key lesson as been that e-commerce requires lots of types of people, so you can’t hire like you would for a tech team, just doesn’t work.

Today I posted something on our team site which I’ve been stewing on for a while, thought I’d post it here for others to see and perhaps utilise in their companies.

Key issue is that when you don’t explicitly state things, then people make assumptions. When they make assumptions, then often the way you think things should / would / could be done, are not the same as the assumptions… Be prepared for fuckups to ensue.

So, you have to make things a bit more explicit to make sure that people know where the boundaries are.

And without further ado (some stuff removed to take out competitive intel):


A quick update on what to do and what not to do in situations where decisions need to be made, and where (some) overall responsibility, accountability and decision making lies.

Product imports:
Bulk importing often upsets indexing / caching on the servers; communication that it was happening could have solved the issue

This is your responsibility if you are doing an update. Let tech & ecomm teams know you are doing an import / export to rest of the team.

Caveat emptor:
Flo is working on solution for this not to be an issue, which will go live with AWS. This may negate the above.

Conversion rates on site:
Sometimes we do things which knowingly or unwittingly which affect conversion rates. Case in point is the red box on the product pages over Xmas, which resulted in 50% or more decrease in site conversion rate.

Gareth has overall accountability for this. If the conversion rate is materially down ( more than 30% reduction for more than a day ), needs to be raised immediately with Gareth.
If there are material changes in the conversion rate ( more than 30% reduction for more than a day ), we should expect to drop everything to work on analysis and a fix.

On-site changes, features, user experience
I want to bring some consistency to the features & UX we release from now on – and will only let new features go live when I am happy with the UX.

All website changes to the frontend need to be run through Gareth for foreseeable future.
Posting onto the team site is great for feedback, but does not constitute approval / decision making.

Caveat emptor:
Excludes merchandising tactics like banners & product labels etc.

Site issues, site down, pages not loading
We encounter pages which don’t load, sites which are not live, caches which are broken etc etc

Flo has overall accountability for this. If this is a significant problem, we should expect to drop everything to work on analysis and a fix. If Flo is in a meeting, then that meeting should be interrupted. If Flo is not available, first port of call is Gareth then Martijn. If it is a weekend, then first person to contact is Gareth to triage severity of the problem. If it needs to be fixed immediately, Gareth will get in touch with Flo. Do not attempt to contact Gareth via anything other than a phone call or txt message. Skype and email are not reliable enough for this.

Bugs / issues / tech problems
We encounter problems with BrightPearl, Magento, SagePay, PayPal, etc etc

Do not send the problem directly to one of the developers in the tech team. Ever.
First port of call is Anish for triage. If Anish is not available, then Gareth. If Gareth is not available then Flo.
If the problem is threatening our ability to transact, fulfil orders or complete payments to suppliers, then this takes priority. If this is a significant problem, we should expect to drop everything to work on analysis and a fix. If Anish is in a meeting, then that meeting should be interrupted. Do not attempt to contact Anish via anything other than in person, a phone call or txt message. Skype and email are not reliable enough for this.

We encounter a drop in traffic to the websites, for whatever reason (ads down, ads paused, ad position poor) etc

Jacob has overall accountability for this. If this is a significant problem, we should expect to drop everything to work on analysis and a fix. If Jacob is in a meeting, then that meeting should be interrupted. If Jacob is not available, first port of call is Ed then Gareth. If it is a weekend, then first person to contact is Jacob to triage severity of the problem. If it needs to be fixed immediately, Jacob will sort it out, or get in touch with Ed for help. Do not attempt to contact Jacob via anything other than a phone call or txt message. Skype and email are not reliable enough for this.

We have a problem with stock deliveries to our warehouse or Colchester. Or we have a problem with stock in warehouses. This materially affects stock availability for our sites, or photography of the products for the sites.

Alan has overall accountability for this. If this is a significant problem, we should expect to drop everything to work on analysis and a fix. If Alan is in a meeting, then that meeting should be interrupted. If Alan is not available, first port of call is Tom then Jacob. If it is a weekend, then first person to contact is Alan to triage severity of the problem. If it needs to be fixed immediately, Alan will sort it out, or get in touch with Tom for help. Do not attempt to contact Alan via anything other than a phone call or txt message. Skype and email are not reliable enough for this.

Meeting notes not comprehensive enough
We make decisions, make commitments within teams, agree direction or allocation of people, or ask people to do things for us and then we don’t document this. This then runs the risk of things being forgotten, “he said, she said” arguments, running around like headless chickens doing things which are not important, or worst case people not aware of what is going on.

All meetings should have: (1) agenda, (2) meeting notes, (3) actions.
All meetings must go into calendar.
Agenda goes into calendar description, or team site before the meeting.
Meeting notes go into the team site; comments go into replies.
Actions go into Asana; comments and collaboration goes into Asana tasks.
Any project changes must go into intranet spec / project page so they are documented as such.

With respect to external people:
All meeting notes via email and then onto the team site as a reference.
Actions into asana as usual.

Saying No! is as important and sometimes more important, as saying Yes!
We see something shiny and new. We get excited. We ask people to look into it, we spend a day chasing it, we start getting into email threads about it, we do some work on it, try something new out.

We start going down rabbit holes. We chase too many rabbits. We chase lots of shiny things but we don’t get the important things done.

We end up with lots of rabbits, but nothing else.

Do not do anything unless it is in a team project, and associated with a team deliverable. Do not go off piste. Do not add projects to Asana unless you are clear that they are a part of the larger company objectives. Do not assign tasks that send people down rabbit holes.

Gareth has overall accountability for direction, deliverables, deadlines and focus. If you want to change direction, go for a different deliverable, change the deadline, or change focus, it has to be run past Gareth first.

If you do not, you run the risk of losing your job, missing out on a bonus, missing out on a promotion, or worst of all letting your team and the company down. Stay focussed.

If you are not sure of what you should be doing, then the first thing to do is ask, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, asking for help, asking for direction, and getting help with focus is one of the first signs of greatness.

And to be clear (this will be fleshed out more in the coming week), these are the general objectives for 2014:
1. get XXX down to XX% or less
2. get revenue up to £XXm per month
2a. get XXX up and contributing
2b. get XXX contributing more
2c. get SEO and other performance marketing channels contributing XXX% of revenue
3. Add XXXXX as transactional site
3a. Get Wedo brand ready for XXXXXX
5. Add XXXXXX channel

Any effort into anything else is superflous. Period.

Some general principles / points:
Learn to think if your time as rocks, pebbles, sand and water. Start with the rocks. If we do not get the rocks done, but we answer lots of emails / do lots of small things / focus on the unimportant work, the rocks will still not get done. Start with the rocks.

Email is asynchronous. Sending an email does not mean you have to get a reply. If you want to speak to someone, speak to them, do not rely on email.

Get into the habit of posting meeting notes during meetings; or directly after meetings

Get into the habit of allocating enough time to work on projects so that they are done to completion. I am guilty of this because I’m chasing 25 things at once, so I’m going to start being more ruthless with my time and focus – so should everyone else.

Get out of the habit of ad-hoc interruptions. This is a great little primer for anyone who thinks that ad-hoc interruptions are OK.

Posting something onto the team site and asking for feedback does not mean it will be done, not that it will be remembered – that is what Asana is for.

Adding someone as a follower to a task does not mean they will do it – you must assign to that person if you want them to do the task.

Get out of the habit of using Skype for conversations; Get into the habit of speaking to people. Use your legs and feet to walk over to people when you’ve agreed to discuss something. Accept that you will have to schedule time with people to have these conversations, because the best time to discuss things is when you’re both ready to discuss and can think clearly. Accept that a quick 5 min conversation is waaaaaaaaaaaay faster than a 30 min Skype conversation which interrupts work flow.

You have to do the hard things…

by oneafrikan on January 23, 2014

I recently came across this:

You have to do the hard things:
* You have to make the call you’re afraid to make.
* You have to get up earlier than you want to get up.
* You have to give more than you get in return right away.
* You have to care more about others than they care about you.
* You have to fight when you are already injured, bloody, and sore.
* You have to feel unsure and insecure when playing it safe seems smarter.
* You have to lead when no one else is following you yet.
* You have to invest in yourself even though no one else is.
* You have to look like a fool while you’re looking for answers you don’t have.
* You have to grind out the details when it’s easier to shrug them off.
* You have to deliver results when making excuses is an option.
* You have to search for your own explanations even when you’re told to accept the “facts.”
* You have to make mistakes and look like an idiot.
* You have to try and fail and try again.
* You have to run faster even though you’re out of breath.
* You have to be kind to people who have been cruel to you.
* You have to meet deadlines that are unreasonable and deliver results that are unparalleled.
* You have to be accountable for your actions even when things go wrong.
* You have to keep moving towards where you want to be no matter what’s in front of you.

You have to do the hard things. The things that no one else is doing. The things that scare you. The things that make you wonder how much longer you can hold on.

Those are the things that define you. Those are the things that make the difference between living a life of mediocrity or outrageous success.

The hard things are the easiest things to avoid. To excuse away. To pretend like they don’t apply to you.

The simple truth about how ordinary people accomplish outrageous feats of success is that they do the hard things that smarter, wealthier, more qualified people don’t have the courage — or desperation — to do.

Do the hard things. You might be surprised at how amazing you really are.

So I’m not going to comment on this, other than to say I hope it’s made some sense to you, or helps you think about the things you’re doing in a different way. As for me, I have my own hard things to do and the day is still young… ;-)

Re-thinking Twitter, or better put, Signal vs Noise

by oneafrikan on September 18, 2013

5 min time allocation for this post….

Twitter has become too noisy for me. Because I live in startup and tech land, the insane number of meaningless tweets I was thumbing through whenever I used twitter was becoming more and more frustrating. Too much inane noise, not enough (connection or) signal.

So I’ve unfollowed everyone except those people I work closely with, are family, or are going to become family.

In an effort to find the signal that is right for me right now, I’m going to limit myself to following no more than 300 people. If that doesn’t work, I’ll take it down to that theoretical maintainable friends network number of 150 (anyone confirm?).

Lets’ see what happens.

You get 5 types of people

by oneafrikan on September 17, 2013

I was listening to a talk recently where the speaker talked about the 5 types of people. I’ve understood this intuitively, but for the first time I’d heard it explained in a bite sized, easy to understand way.

Basically, the speakers assertion was that in any business you get 5 types of people, and when you ask them to do something one of the following things will happen:

  1. They don’t do it
  2. They ask “how do I do it?”
  3. They ask “can I do it like this?”
  4. They just do it
  5. They do it without being asked

By and large, I’ve found this to be true and think it’s a pretty good way of thinking about how people in my business are contributing.  As a leader, I see my role as continually living in group 5, if only to lead by example.

His further assertion was that the proportion of people who belong to group 4 is about 1 in 25 and group 5, 1 in 50.  Youngsters or entry level people should always be in group 3 and up, and you should always look to hire people from group 4 and 5.   And then lastly, groups 1 and 2 should either be let go or managed out.

Of course, this is all easier said than done, but again a pretty good way to frame a hiring process which unearths these people.

Lastly, he brought up an interesting way of looking at talent and performance, which is explained below.

Employee 9 boxes

Employee 9 boxes

Basically, anyone who is red should be let go / managed out, yellow people need to be improving, and green people are the ones you build a business on.

Which one are you? ;-)

How to build a career

by oneafrikan on August 30, 2013

I’ve given myself 20 mins to write this, so here goes…

Last week I had another person ask me how they could earn more money. My answer was that you generally have to earn it.

A week or two before that I had someone say that they wanted to earn 3x their salary now in the next 18 months. My response to them was unless they were selling drugs, woman, body parts, or the whereabouts of Edward Snowdon, they were unlikely to achieve that in the corporate life they lived in.

Conversely, about a month ago I had one of my team tell me they wanted to earn a salary that was £10k p/y up on where they are now, within the next 3 years. My response to that was that they were underselling themselves, and I think they could earn £15 to £20k more per year if they kept on doing what they were doing (i.e. performing).

In all 3 examples, each person had what I thought was a distorted view of what it takes to build a career that gives them the financial and career opportunities they were looking for.

For myself, I look back and attribute career growth to:
1. doing the work
2. taking on more responsibility (because I displayed enough knowledge of the work to make good decisions)
3. gaining enough trust to be given the next step up
4. rinse and repeat

More often than not, phase 1 was a 1 to 5 year process of learning, and phase 3 was deeply dependant on whether I could convince people that I was capable and responsible enough to take on additional challenges / work / projects etc. In all cases, phase 1 started off with lots of manual, entry level, tedious, work; and the desire to move into phase 3 drove continually pushing the boundaries of what I could accomplish.

To simplify the above, my view is that if you’re sub-30, without dependants like children and a mortgage, and you want to take your career seriously, then you should always, always be under-paid, and over-worked and you should always pick career and personal growth over better pay.

If you unpack that, it means that you should always be growing so fast that you’re being underpaid (i.e.: your growth rate does not equal a yearly inflationary increase), and you should always be working at a capacity over what is expected of you (so you get given more opportunities because your capacity exceeds those around you).

If you do both of the above, you will be given more responsibility, more challenges, you will gain more experience, you will be exposed to more conversations and decisions, and you will eventually be asked to lead. When all of that happens, the financial benefits start to kick in, and then you are limited by what you can produce, the people you can lead, the decisions you make, the trust you engender, the problems you solve, and how fast you can grow to keep up. When all of that happens, most employers in the world will pay you more than you think you are worth today. Why? Because those people are scarce.

Put another way, when I interview and then work with people, I generally boil things down to whether I think I can give that person more responsibility, and then whether they can handle it. So if you ask yourself what you need to do to get more responsibility, and then what kind of person you need to be to handle that additional work / pressure / load etc, then you’re some of the way to figuring out what you need to do to build a career.

Hope that helps anyone sub-30 with no dependants and no mortgage ;-)

I want to share an addiction with you

by oneafrikan on August 6, 2013

Pascal has encouraged me to write more about what’s going on. So today I’m going to talk about an addiction I have.

When things were really tough a few years ago, and to manage my personal cashflow to as low as possible, I was living off two or three egg & cress Tesco sandwiches a day. I think that’s when I started to become intolerant to wheat but that’s another story, and so are the tough times.

What is important is that one day I came across these oat flapjacks which Sainsbury’s makes, and I got hooked. They’re great tasting, there’s no flour or wheat (they do have sugar, yes, but I can cope with that because it’s better then shooting something hard into my veins), and they are a whopping £1.69 or so for a packet. And this packet can sustain the average tech geek for a day, or half a day when there is exercise.

And so I started to buy them occasionally. Like 1 packet every few days. At the time, I had also developed a Kit-Kat habit, mainly because it was one of the things I looked forward to every day (52p Tesco, 55p Sainsbury’s, 70p at the off license, the thieves!), and because, well just because I was convinced that there were worse things I could do.

lembassmallSo over time I developed this real love for the flapjacks (and started doing less Kit-Kat), so much so that I started calling them “Lembas bread” due to their restorative powers – you know, like in The Lord of The Rings.

Shoot forward to today, and I no longer have the same desire I had for it, or the same dependancy, but I kinda see them as a all I need now.

Just last night I walked into Sainsbury’s, nodded knowingly to the guard at the door (his name is Simon), and casually picked up a stash of 4 packets, some orange juice and a slab of ham. Smash the orange juice and ham on the way home, then pop a banana protein shake and a couple Lembas bread to settle the stomach, and you’re away for the late shift.

All in the terribly exciting day of an entrepreneur fighting fires and pushing for growth.

Oh, and they’re healthy for you too…..


What I learnt about Kenya

by oneafrikan on July 11, 2013

I was fortunate enough to travel to Kenya last week, for the first Tech4Africa in East Africa, and then a trip to the Masai Mara afterwards for some much needed downtime. My trip was by no means extensive, and my experiences were really our event, speaking to the people I met, and spending time in the Mara, so please take this as from that ;-)

What follows are my thoughts and observations from the trip:
On average, Kenyans are friendlier than I expected, and probably friendlier than the average South African I’m used to.

Nairobi has probably the worst traffic I’ve experienced (worse than big cities in Vietnam), and I managed to get away lightly.

I was astounded by the general level of education and awareness of everyone I met. Some people asked about the British economy, others asked about Madiba, everyone knew about Wimbledon and Andy Murray, and Zuma / Malema in South Africa.

We stayed at a Best Western hotel which was very similar to the one I stayed at in Tel Aviv, even down to the music in the restaurant. The staff were brilliant, the rooms great, the wifi fast and free, and the food was fine (breakfast got boring after a few days but hey!).

Don’t bank on the internet / wifi at Jomo Kenyatta Airport – it’s patchy and slow.

When you arrive, get yourself a data SIM card, it’ll probably be easier than relying on wifi which is spotty.

Safaricom is everywhere, with Airtel a pretty far away second. I would wager Safaricom to be the biggest brand in Kenya.

mPesa is on every street and everywhere you look – all the local people I spoke to in one way or another said that it’s a great service used by a lot of people, has freed up trade and made them rely less on banks. Even some of the tourists I met were using it and raving at how they wish they could get something like this in Europe. “I don’t want to have to go to the bank to transfer money, or carry cards everywhere I go”.

Big brands you’ll see are FMCG, Samsung, Nokia, Safaricom, mPesa, Toyota, the banks and of course Coke. Pretty interesting as it’s what you’d expect from a growing emerging market.

The informal entrepreneurial sector is really around service provision, again for the needs of a growing emerging market – so everything from hardware to furniture to cars being sold on the side of the road.

The Masai Mara is incredible. I’ve never seen so much game in one place. Within 4 game drives over 2 days, I had the privilege of seeing 4 of the Big 5, along with seeing the beginning of the wildebeest migration (regarded by some as the 8th natural wonder of the world). My photos don’t do it justice, and as a South African who is proud of his natural heritage, I have to say that Kenya is on a different level.

European tourists think the above is normal when they arrive, because it happens so easily. So you’re watching a lioness eating a wildebeest about 5m away from you, and Maria from Spain arrives and is chatting away loudly in the vehicle next to you, without even watching the lion. Or Mr Woo from the East is leaning out of the vehicle trying to take a photo with his Jumbo lens – thinking the lioness is a big pussy cat that won’t just swat you for being irritating.

When you’re in the Mara, you either get to travel in a Land Cruiser, or a modified Taxi (matatu) with it’s roof extended up so you can stand up when game viewing. I don’t know how those vehicles stand up to the beatings they get on those roads.

Stephen, our driver and guide whilst in the Mara was brilliant. Calm, patient, knowledgeable and easy to get along with, we really enjoyed spending time with him and getting to know the locals – from eating in a Kenchicken to getting the locals to help us out of the mud!