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Growth Stories

Charlotte van Leeuwen

Founder at Bord&Stift


Our mission is the boss

25 founders came together at Scale Up Academy, an initiative from Accenture Innovation Awards. Together with the audience, Paul Musters interviewed two special guests from extraordinary companies, in this interview: the founder of Bord&Stift, Charlotte van Leeuwen!

By Marijke Zeevenhooven and Paul Musters (Fortify)

Your website tells us that at your company your mission is the boss. How do people know what they need to do?
Our mission is to explain complex things in an easy way. Based on that mission and on the values we defined for ourselves, we created and divided specific roles that all contribute to getting closer to our mission.

As in probably every company, we have a team concerning finances, a team concerning marketing, a team concerning sales. They are also the ones who are deciding on the topics. So, decision-making power is really connected to the people who are actually doing the work. And who knows best what actually needs to happen. But of course, for some decisions you need a kind of check ‘is this what we want?’ Normally you would ask this to your boss or manager, but we chose to have the mission and our core values to answer that for us.  

This sounds very promising, can you tell us how this works in practice?
For example, two of our core values are freedom and responsibility. If we have to make a certain decision that would go against creating more freedom and responsibility in the company, it wouldn’t make sense, so we don’t do it. Our mission is to explain complex things in an easy way, so if we would do something that would make things very complicated then it’s not logical to do. These two things: a clear mission and clear core values, give people the freedom to make decisions themselves.

Besides that, I think you need fundamental transparency and openness about everything. In our company all the numbers, all the finances, all the salaries, everything is transparent for everybody.

Normally you would ask your boss or manager, but we chose to have the mission to answer for us.

Audience: We also have company values and a vision on where we want to grow too. But sometimes it’s hard when someone sees the vision different than someone else, even though you wrote it down. How do you work around that?

Yes, that can be hard to deal with. I always tend to think that all my colleagues think the same about something I have in mind. But that is not true! That is also what makes it beautiful and what makes a company strong. A company is not only what you have in mind, but many minds who all contribute in their own way.

You can see it as a problem that ‘everybody sees it differently’, but it’s also a kind of richness. I think the conversation is really important. Talk about ‘how do you see this differently?’ or ‘can we find a way together?’. It’s alright that the sales department sometimes sees something different from the people department because they have another focus. It’s all about trust and the balance to bring it all together. I acknowledge it’s difficult, but never forget what it will bring you!

I always tend to think that all my colleagues think the same about something I have in mind. But that is not true!

Audience: Was it your idea from the beginning to let your mission by your guide, or did you grow into this?

As you can see in the picture below, it’s not really in my nature. When I was a child, I always wanted to decide how things are going. I liked arranging and organizing stuff. When I grew older, I started developing myself as a person and I wondered ‘how would I like to work in a company?’.

Our current way of working also arose out of necessity, because when we were small, things just organically worked. If you work with nice people and everybody has a lot of energy, you don’t have to put much structure in place, but we grew and grew and at some point, it felt like everything was going wrong. All the things that normally worked well in our company suddenly did not work anymore. So, then we really had this moment where we asked ourselves ‘how are we going to organize this?’. Do we put on a managerial structure and have managers in place? But luckily there was a little voice who said ‘can it also be different?’. We started to do research on other organizational forms, and we came out on this form. It suited us quite well. I don’t have a feeling that this is the truth for everybody. But I do know it really suits us. It creates a lot of clarity, we have a lot of structures in place, but with the right amount of flexibility.

We’re growing and developing, so we constantly change. Nobody has fixed roles; it’s not like you are the marketing manager or you are the sales manager, everybody in our team can take on multiple roles and can choose their own function. It’s based on what’s needed and on what they want to do. That makes us happy and me including. Maybe it is a bit egoistic; I’m really happy within my own company.

Audience: You work with a lot of entrepreneurs and freelancers, but also with people you hire, so you’re combining this?

Yes! People say it doesn’t work and you only need full-time employees, but we work with a lot of freelancers. It’s also the nature of creative work. It works really well for us. Everyone fully takes part in the company. They have all the information, and we share a part of the profit amongst each other. So, it’s kind of mixed.

Audience: You describe nobody has a fixed role. How do you cope with KPI’s, taking responsibility and accountability?

So to make clear, you can change roles, but when you take up a role it’s really clear who’s responsible for what. So we defined teams and you can join a team, but you don’t have to stay there forever. If something changes in your life, you can step out of the team and somebody else can step in. We have a huge, detailed excel sheet with ‘who can decide about this, who is responsible for that, etcetera’. It’s something we ran into, because before it was not clearly defined and people had different ideas: “I thought that person was responsible” or “I thought I could make that decision.” So we found out that we needed a bit more structure.

Keep asking yourself: How would I like to work in a company myself?

Paul: You are a physicist and astronomist. We talked about all these different aspects that have an effect on each other. How does your background in astronomy help you to design and structure your company?

What I really liked about my studies is that you have to think many layers deep. Besides that, things are not always as they seem, like relativity and time in space. Those things are not as you think they are. You get a bit suspicious to reality: ‘is it really like that?’ I’ve always had that with all these theories about how to run your company. I got a bit suspicious and wondered ‘is it really like that?’

For example with sales, it’s often seen as common knowledge; if you want to increase sales, you should give people bonuses. But then, I try to think a few steps ahead, and I ask myself ‘is this really true?’ Because if you give people bonuses for sales, there will be side effects. For example, for people, it’s more important to make the numbers in your system good, than actually doing the job well. Or it becomes important to perform better than your colleagues. So although it seems very logical; ‘increase sales, put on bonuses’, I think it’s good to look at all the side effects and the whole picture. With physics and astronomy, you have to think big, It often made me think ‘ah, maybe it’s possible!’ That mindset is really in my heart.

“Increase Sales > Give bonuses? But then you forget all side effects on your company culture!”

Audience: Is being happy part of your company values?

Happiness is not part of our company values, I think it’s interwoven. We want to care about each other as employees, as people. That’s not something we want to give up for more profit for example. That, and being happy, is in our culture. We’re a team, so it concerns everybody’s personal development and happiness. As a founder, I can try to tell everybody what to do. But I think my behavior is much more important. If I take good care of myself and make sure I take on roles where I’m happy in, I also give space to my colleagues to do the things they like and where they are at their best.

So more people in our company are sometimes like ‘no, I don’t like this role anymore, I’m going to another role’, which I think is really important. I don’t want people to stay in a position because they feel they’re obliged to do that. Then they’ll go into negative energy in doing their jobs.

Audience: How do you avoid that everybody constantly switches roles? Does that happen?

It’s something people can be afraid of, they think ‘what if everybody does what he wants? Maybe it will be chaos!’ In certain kind of jobs, I was like ‘no, I can not give this task to anybody, because it’s such a stupid job’, but then I found out that what I think is a stupid job, somebody else totally loves. For example, putting the whole planning system structure in place is my worst nightmare, but somebody else is really looking forward to doing that.

When people are really involved, they also feel very responsible. And if it’s a really shitty job, that nobody feels motivated for and nobody sees the value of, then we ask ourselves the question if the job has to be done at all. Often it’s something we can automate or can be solved by another system.

While growing, we came to the point where all the things that normally worked well in our company suddenly did not work anymore.

Audience: How many people change roles? Does this happen a lot?

It depends on the person and on so many other things. Most people are really happy in the teams they are in, so they’re not changing so much. Sometimes someone changes due to something personal that happens. Then that person prefers a little less heavy job, so then he or she steps aside and someone else can step in again. I think once a month somebody changes something small. I recently stepped out of a team myself as well :-).

Audience: Are there changes in teams or is it more changing of roles? For example from marketing to finance?

Yes, that’s also possible. But I see that people like to stick to a role and to a team for quite a while. When you get in a team, you get enthusiastic about it.

Paul: Shall I show the picture of all the different teams?

Yes. These are all our teams. You can move the heads easily on the whiteboard, It shows we can easily change the teams. These teams also have the decision-making power regarding the topic they’re in. Sometimes teams also can go to sleep if they feel they’re not needed anymore. Then they can put themselves on hold for a while and get back in place if it’s needed again. Connected to this nice looking thing is a whole excel spreadsheet with all the details of which team does what, but it’s less nice to show for now :-).

Audience: You mentioned the salaries are open as well. How does the change of teams and roles influence the salaries?

Not. We had a discussion of course because salaries are always an interesting subject. We had a conversation about ‘what do we think is important when giving salaries?’ And we had a few things. We think it’s important that is has a sense of equality. So it has to feel fair. And we also think it’s important that not the person with the biggest mouth gets the biggest salary. If you don’t put something in place, then the people who dare to ask, they get the pay raise and the people who do a great job, but aren’t that extroverted, don’t get a pay raise. That felt weird, so we didn’t want that. And then we doubted for a long time if we want to link performance or responsibility to salary. For a long time, we wanted to do that, and we came up with a system where you can give points to each other. And then at some point, we found out it got so complicated.

Then I visited a few companies that worked with this point-salary system, but the effect I saw, was that if someone is not performing really well, they already feel really shitty about it. And then they also get a punishment in salary. I felt it was not contributing to them performing better. We soon decided to cut that out. We’ve made a simple formula, where the amount of work experience and the number of years you work at Bord&Stift, are taken into account, and they decide your salary. It’s the same for everybody.

Our employees are more important than our company.

Audience: But there is a gigantic difference between the different kinds of jobs, right? Like software developers have a higher salary than other functions.

Yes, that’s true, but that’s not a problem we face yet. I think that would be something we discuss openly with each other. Then we would say ‘ok, this is the reality, what do we think is fair?’. All the structures we have in place, they are rigid, but not fixed. It’s not like, if we do something, we will do that forever, it’s something we can always discuss. We will discuss it, and then we will make a clear decision and then the structure is again in place for a while.

Audience: How did you learn to build a system like this?

There is a lot of theory behind this. I’ve read almost everything you can read about it, and we also have a company helping us to transition in this form. We visit other companies who are also organized this way. But we made our own mix. There is no one formula for success. It’s a mix of things that are known and things we found out ourselves. Some things we tried, we’ve put away again.

Audience: Can you say the name some books who helped you in the transition?

Yes, you can read about ‘Holacracy’, ‘Horizontal organization’ is another keyword you can search for. ‘Reinventing organization’ from Frederic Laloux is a fascinating one to read. It’s a whole niche, a whole world, where you can read forever. But I also think you should just try stuff.

Paul: When I visited your office I saw a revenue meter and next to it, all kinds of games. So, a nice combination! How do you see the balance between fun and business?

I think it’s important to have that balance and I recently was at a talk where I heard somebody saying something really sensible to me. He talked about holding goals lightly. So you set goals because goals are really useful, they give you direction and to go somewhere. But there are so many factors influencing that goal. It’s not like you have total control over it. So you don’t have to stress out and die if you don’t reach your goal. You can also think ‘ok, how does this come, can we change it?’ And of course you work diligently towards that goal, but I think that lightness is sometimes more helpful than when you get too attached to it. That is where the games come in. In general, the psychological safety you mentioned earlier, for me it feels very natural and intuitive that a safe and comfortable environment is the basis from where you want to run your company. There is space for people to play games, be themselves. It’s a different way to check-in with each other and shows how you are personally doing. If something is wrong, you can just share it.

Paul: How do you know that as a founder? Because as a founder you’re seen as a boss, even if the mission is the boss. How do you know that employees, or people you work with, dare to say everything to you as a founder?

That’s a problem because they don’t. For example, I kept telling everybody that I’m really an accessible person, everybody can say anything to me. But I found, even in our open culture, it’s hard for people to say negative stuff for example. So, we are now really conscious with putting structures in place that get all these little negative things out of the people. For example, we start a meeting where everybody can mention if they have any tensions on a certain topic. So you actively ask for it. And while I think I am very open, it’s not that everybody dares to say everything. Concluding; It’s a really hard topic. Harder than I thought and we keep working on it.

Paul: We came to our closing question: ‘what is the best advice you can give this nice group of founders?’

For me, one of the greatest things I learned is something very contradicting to all the things entrepreneurial books and speakers are telling you (you should give EVERYTHING, work 80 hours a week, put your company first! etc.). I learned actually to not give everything of myself to my company and put the company before everything else. I actually decided to put taking good care of myself as a person as a first priority. This counts also for the employees, they are more important than the company itself. The priorities of the company comes later.

That created a lot of space for me. Because it created the space for me to really dare to choose the things I want to do. Created a space for me to work 30 hours a week instead of 80 hours a week. These things enabled me to really think deeply ‘how do I want it?’ And to do some research on these big questions ‘where do I really stand for?’ I’m really grateful I can arrange it in that way. It’s something we rarely do; really create a lot of space for yourself in which you can find the answers to the deeper questions on which kind of company you want to create and in that way: in what kind of way you want to contribute to the world..

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